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Repatriation Frequently Asked Questions

Repatriation of the Stone T'xwelatse.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) is a Federal Law that was passed in 1990. This act requires all Federal agencies, or State or local agencies, public and private museums that receive federal funding to identify human remains, funerary objects in their collections and consult with Native American tribes and organizations about their return. Through this law, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony are also identified by the relevant Native American Tribes, and if requested, returned. The law also addresses intentional and inadvertent discovery of Native American cultural items on Federal and tribal lands, and illegal trafficking of these sensitive materials.

How has the Burke Museum complied with NAGPRA?

Federal agencies and museums were required to provide summaries of their holdings of Native American collections to the appropriate culturally affiliated Tribes in 1993. In 1995, they were required to identify the items in their collections that could be considered Native American human remains and funerary objects and submit a detailed item-by-item inventory for these human remains and funerary objects. The Burke completed both of these steps by the respective federal deadlines. In order to stay in communication with tribes, and as a courtesy to provide tribes information about incoming collections, the Burke submitted updated summaries to tribes in 1999, 2001, and 2005. The Burke will be submitting the next summary for accessions acquired between 2005 and 2007 in October, 2007. The Burke then invited relevant tribes to the Burke to consult about NAGPRA cultural items. Written claims for select items were then submitted by tribes to the museum. Once the museum and the tribe have agreed on the status of the claim, either a Notice of Inventory Completion (human remains and associated funerary objects) or a Notice of Intent to Repatriate (unassociated funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony) is forwarded to National NAGPRA for review, approval, and publication in the Federal Register. At this time, other tribal entities who believe themselves to be culturally affiliated with the cultural items have 30 days to notify the museum. If no one contests, the Burke proceeds with repatriation of the cultural items to the culturally affiliated group. This process can take many months or even years to complete. It is important to the Burke Museum to maintain open dialogue with all potentially affiliated Native American groups to ensure that the Burke completes our responsibilities in a thorough and accurate manner.

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What items are subject to return under NAGPRA?

There are five carefully defined categories of cultural items that NAGPRA covers: human remains, associated funerary object, unassociated funerary object, sacred object, and object of cultural patrimony. They are each defined by the law as:

Human remains refer to the physical remains of a human body of a person of Native American ancestry. The term does not include remains or portions of remains that may reasonably be determined to have been freely given or naturally shed by the individual from whose body they were obtained, such as hair made into ropes or nets.

Funerary objects refer to items that, as part of the death rite or ceremony of a culture, are reasonably believed to have been placed intentionally at the time of death or later with or near individual human remains.

Associated funerary objects refer to funerary objects associated with human remains where the human remains are also in the possession or control of the museum or Federal agency. Associated funerary objects also means those funerary objects that were made exclusively for burial purposes or to contain human remains.

Unassociated funerary objects refer to funerary objects associated with human remains where the human remains are not in the possession or control of the museum or Federal agency.

Sacred objects means items that are specific ceremonial objects needed by traditional Native American religious leaders for the practice of traditional Native American religions by their present-day adherents. These regulations are specifically limited to objects that were devoted to a traditional Native American religious ceremony or ritual and which have religious significance or function in the continued observance or renewal of such ceremony.

Objects of cultural patrimony means items having ongoing historical, traditional, or cultural importance central to the Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization itself, rather than property owned by an individual tribal or organization member. These objects are of such central importance that they may not be alienated, appropriated, or conveyed by any individual tribal or organization member. Such objects must have been considered inalienable by the culturally affiliated Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization at the time the object was separated from the group.

For more information on legal definitions visit the National NAGPRA glossary.

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Why is this legislation important?

NAGPRA is a landmark piece of legislation that combines administrative law, property law, and criminal law in protecting civil rights and religious freedoms of Native American tribes. Native American human remains and cultural items have historically been removed from what was intended as their final resting place against the will of the affiliated communities. This law now declares that tribes have the right to reclaim human remains and cultural items and care for their deceased in a culturally appropriate manner.

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Why are some museum objects treated with pesticide?

Museums and individual collectors have a long history of using pesticides to safeguard artifacts against pests. Unfortunately, many of these substances used in the early 1900s through the 1970s are now know to be harmful to human health. It is important to be aware of the history of objects before repatriating them, as it can have serious health implications for a community. For example, if sacred objects are contaminated, they could be harmful for community members to handle. In the case of contaminated human remains or funerary objects, it could be hazardous to rebury or cremate them, as it may impact ground water or contaminate the air quality. If museums or Federal agencies have knowledge of such contamination, they are required under NAGPRA to disclose this to the tribe during consultation. For more information on pesticide contamination please see Nason, James. 2001 Dangerous Collections! Pesticides in Museum Materials. History News 56(3): 21-25. (PDF).

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What happens after the museum returns the cultural items?

After the museum or Federal agency transfers control to the tribe, the disposition of the cultural items is at the discretion of the tribes. Human remains and funerary objects are often reburied or cremated. On occasion, funerary objects have been retained and or displayed by tribal museums or repositories. Sacred objects are used for religious practices by tribal religious leaders. Objects of cultural patrimony are often kept available for the community. Each tribe has different beliefs and practices to address these important issues.

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What has the Burke been doing to update tribes on materials that have been added to the collection from 1995 to the present?

The Burke recognized that until 2007 there was no vehicle in place for reporting collections acquired between reporting of the 1995 inventories and the present. In order to stay in communication with tribes, and as a courtesy to provide tribes information about incoming collections, the Burke submitted summaries to tribes with these updates in 1999, 2001, 2005, and 2007. For any human remains or funerary objects discovered in the collections during this time, the Burke reported those as soon as possible to the affiliated tribes.

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How do the new regulations affect the Burke Museum and other museums/agencies?

On April 20, 2007 a new section of the NAGPRA regulations regarding future applicability (43 CFR Part 10.13) went into affect. This new regulation requires museums and Federal agencies to provide updated summaries of new or unreported collections to the culturally affiliated tribes within six months of their receipt. If relevant for these collections, the museum or Federal agency then has two years to complete their detailed inventories. This new regulation also requires museums or Federal agencies to report summaries and inventories to newly-recognized Indian tribes within six months and two years, respectively, of their recognition.

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I recently found human remains in my yard. What should I do?

The Burke Museum is happy to help facilitate the transfer of human remains to the appropriate Native American tribe, or provide guidance on this process. However, there are both federal and state laws that govern the recovery of human remains. For this reason if you find human remains of any kind please contact the appropriate law enforcement agency by calling 911. No, this does not mean that you have necessarily committed a crime. This is a necessary step in order to allow the medical examiner to determine whether or not they are human, and whether or not they are Native American. The recent discovery of human remains is first treated as a crime scene in order to rule out any recent criminal activities. There are a number of laws in place that protect human burials besides NAGPRA. For private property, these laws vary by state. In Washington State, for example. it is a felony to knowingly disturb a Indian grave on private property. For more infomration see the complete text of Washington State's Indian Graves and Records Act. If you have any questions, please contact the Archaeology NAGPRA Coordinator at the Burke Museum immediately. We are happy to help you with this process.

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Will Kennewick Man be repatriated under NAGPRA?

The Burke Museum has been the neutral repository for the 9,200 year old remains known as "Kennewick Man" or "the Ancient One" since 1998. The U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers is the responsible agency for the remains. The Burke does not have jurisdiction over the NAGPRA status of these remains. The Burke Museum is committed to being the neutral and respectful repository of these remains. In August 2002 the initial ruling of the court case filed by eleven scientists wanting to study the remains, Bonnichsen v. the United States, passed down by the U.S. District court was upheld. The remains were ruled not "Native American" and therefore not subject to NAGPRA. As such, the remains were made available for scientific study.

Various members of the eleven member scientific team have visited the Burke on three separate occasions between December 2004 and July 2006 to conduct their research. The Burke Museum will remain the neutral and respectful repository of these remains.

The Burke Museum has welcomed several visits from tribal members who have conducted ceremonies with the human remains.

To learn more about these remains and the case please visit our Kennewick Man Web site.

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Further Questions?

For more frequently asked questions about NAGPRA, please visit National NAGPRAs Web site.

For more information, please contact:

Hollye Keister
University of Washington
Box 353010
Seattle, WA 98195-3010