Where Does My Museum Start with the New NAGPRA Regulations – American Alliance of Museums
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Where Does My Museum Start with the New NAGPRA Regulations – American Alliance of Museums

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Photo by Nejc Soklič on Unsplash

The following guidelines have been developed with the assistance of subject matter experts in the museum field.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), enacted in 1990, is a landmark federal law that requires federal agencies and institutions receiving federal funds to return Native American human remains and cultural objects to direct descendants and culturally affiliated Native nations. These cultural objects include funerary objects, sacred objects, and cultural heritage objects.

On December 6, 2023, the Department of the Interior announced significant revisions to the NAGPRA regulations. The new regulations emphasize greater deference to the Indigenous knowledge of direct descendants and Native American tribes, including removing the category of “culturally unidentifiable human remains.” This change underscores a shift toward empowering Indigenous communities in the repatriation process. The revised regulations also streamline the requirements for museums and federal agencies to inventory and identify Native American human remains and cultural objects in their collections, facilitating a more systematic process for identifying and returning these objects.

The new requirements emphasize relationship building and due diligence in obtaining informed consent from affiliated tribal representatives before exhibiting or conducting research on Native American human remains and/or cultural objects. This ensures that exhibits and research are consistent with the wishes and cultural practices of the affiliated Native American tribes. That said, this due diligence does not undermine the primary focus of NAGPRA, which is repatriation.

Implementing the new NAGPRA regulations will require careful planning and consideration to ensure compliance and respectful treatment of Native American religious and cultural objects. This step-by-step guide will help your museum staff begin implementing the new requirements:

Educate and train staff

Start by educating staff about the updates. This may involve hosting workshops, inviting speakers, or providing online resources to ensure everyone understands the importance of the law and their role in complying with it. Recognize that the new regulations prioritize Indigenous ways of knowing and require museums to provide more detailed justifications for their decisions.

Fostering an organizational culture that values ​​collaboration and respect for Indigenous knowledge will require training all staff involved in NAGPRA compliance, including curators, collections managers, and outreach coordinators, on cultural sensitivity, legal obligations under NAGPRA, and best practices for engaging with Native American communities.

Create a NAGPRA committee

Forming a dedicated NAGPRA committee that includes diverse stakeholders, including museum staff, tribal representatives, legal counsel, and cultural experts, can help staff oversee NAGPRA compliance efforts and facilitate communication between the museum and Native American communities.

Building relationships and consulting with Native tribes and organizations

Establish open lines of communication with Native American tribes and organizations by attending tribal meetings, conferences, and events to meet with leaders and learn about their cultural practices, concerns, and priorities. Always collaborate with tribal representatives and, when in doubt, ask questions to create a mutually respectful and transparent relationship.

Consult early and often

  • Start building relationships before consultation is necessary and consult with tribal officials as soon as possible.
  • Although not required by NAGPRA regulations, involving Native tribes in all decisions related to exhibits, research, and collections management can be a great way to move forward. NAGPRA requires this for Native American human remains and NAGPRA cultural objects.
  • Seek their input on exhibit design, labeling, and interpretation to ensure accuracy and cultural sensitivity.

Provide clear information

  • Clearly explain the purpose of any consultation.
  • Share what you already know about Native American human remains and cultural objects, what you think their significance is, and ask for their opinions.
  • Be transparent about your museum’s intentions and limitations.

Respect tribal sovereignty

  • Recognize tribal sovereignty and the right of Indigenous tribes to make decisions regarding their cultural heritage.
  • Understanding that Native tribes may have different perspectives and priorities.
  • Be prepared to adapt your plans based on their feedback.

Consultation of documents

  • Keep detailed records of all consultations, including meeting minutes, correspondence and agreements. Consider sharing consultation notes with stakeholders so they can write up anything that needs to remain confidential.
  • Document how tribal contributions influenced decisions.
  • Use these records to demonstrate compliance with NAGPRA requirements, if necessary.

Evaluate current collections

Conduct a complete inventory of the museum’s collections for potential Native American cultural objects, human remains, and/or funerary objects. This inventory should include detailed information about the origin, provenance, and any cultural affiliation associated with each object.

  • Invite tribal representatives with whom you have established relationships to assist you, if they wish, and include them in any identification.
  • Prioritize repatriation efforts based on tribal demands and cultural significance.
  • Address all items not previously identified within five years of the final rule.

Develop clear policies and procedures

Create or update your museum’s policies and procedures related to NAGPRA compliance. This includes protocols for consulting with Native tribes, managing repatriation requests, conducting research on collections (both acquired and non-acquired or deaccessioned objects) that may be covered by NAGPRA, and documenting repatriation efforts.

Review and revise documentation

Review existing documentation of Native American human remains and cultural objects in the museum’s collections, ensuring its accuracy and completeness, and consult with your consultants to verify. It is important to understand where your museum is in the NAGPRA process. If you are unsure of what has happened in your museum in the past, the National NAGPRA Program may be able to share copies of previously submitted documentation. Revise documentation as necessary to meet NAGPRA requirements.

  1. Implement repatriation procedures: Develop clear procedures to manage repatriation requests and conduct repatriation ceremonies that incorporate cultural protocols. This will involve coordinating efforts with tribal representatives, arranging for the return of objects, and documenting the repatriation process.
  2. Regular Review and Update: Establish a schedule for regular review and updating of NAGPRA compliance procedures to ensure continued compliance with regulatory requirements and best practices. This may involve conducting internal audits, soliciting feedback from tribal partners, and staying informed of changes in NAGPRA regulations.

Public education

Participate in public outreach and education initiatives to raise awareness of NAGPRA and the museum’s compliance and repatriation efforts. This may include hosting public programs, publishing informational materials, and working with local schools and community organizations.

Be flexible and adaptable

  • Recognize that consultation is an ongoing process.
  • Be prepared to adjust your plans based on new information or changing tribal perspectives.
  • Continuously learn and improve your approach.

Implementing the updated NAGPRA regulatory changes requires commitment, empathy, and a willingness to learn. By engaging in respectful consultation with Native American tribes and organizations, museums can help heal past inequities and build stronger relationships with Native communities.

Remember that every tribe is unique and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Tailor your consultation efforts to the specific needs and preferences of the Native tribes you work with. Together, we can honor cultural heritage while fostering understanding and collaboration.

Additional Resources

National NAGPRA Program https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nagpra/index.htm . Recorded webinars, resources, guidance documents and templates. Program staff are a great resource for questions at [email protected].

NAGPRA Community of Practice https://www.nagpracommunityofpractice.com – This is a community for people engaged or interested in implementing NAGPRA to come together, share resources, and learn from each other.

Minnesota History Center https://kstp.com/kstp-news/top-news/updated-federal-regulations-affecting-how-native-american-artifacts-are-displayed-in-museums/ history on answer to the change in NAGPRA regulations. The items currently on display are part of an exhibition entitled “Our house“which was organized with and by the indigenous communities, so we believe that we are in compliance with the regulations.