The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act—NAGPRA for short—was enacted in 1990. Its purpose is to protect the rights of Native peoples in the United States regarding their cultural heritage. NAGPRA recognizes and protects the right of Native Americans and Native Hawaiians to maintain or regain control of Native items of cultural and religious significance. Some of the types of items of cultural heritage that are regulated and protected under NAGPRA include:
- Objects representing Native American cultural heritage and patrimony
- Human remains
- Funerary objects
- Burial grounds
- Sacred objects
- Objects of ceremonial significance
- Objects of cultural patrimony
The two parties most affected by the NAGPRA legislation are the Native American tribes and non-tribal museums/research institutions that have items such as those items of Native American origin described above. One major mandate of the NAGPRA legislation states that museums in possession of items of Native American cultural patrimony may be required to return such items to the Native tribes from which the objects originate. The process of returning objects of Native American origin to their rightful Native American owners is known as repatriation. Click this link to message our experts your questions about NAGPRA.
The repatriation mandate can pose significant challenges both to museums that have Native objects of cultural significance in their collections, and to the tribes to whom those objects are repatriated. The problem lies in the fact that museum objects were treated with toxic heavy metals for many decades, making them unsafe to handle. Specifically, many museum objects that are made of organic materials tend to attract pests; as little as twenty years ago, museums treated such objects with arsenic (As) and mercury (Hg) in order to deter and exterminate insect and rodent pests.
These toxic heavy metals are dangerous to handle, and the dust they produce is unsafe to inhale. When objects treated in these ways are repatriated to Native American tribes and organizations, they may pose a hazard if they are handled without precautions. These objects pose the most danger when tribes intend to put them back into cultural use; for example, a mask that has been treated with arsenic around the mouth and eye holes should never be worn. In order to protect people in the museum community, in tribal museums, and throughout Native communities, institutions that return items to Native Americans must know of and disclose any health hazards those items might pose.