Reflections on NAGPRA: Exceptions to Repatriation

In class this week, we were discussing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation act. Repatriation in general is a tricky issue, and one that former imperial powers continue to struggle with. How do museums and governments handle objects that were taken in ways that were legal at the time, but now would be considered theft? NAGPRA is one way to deal with this issue. The law gives federally-recognized Native American tribes a way to reclaim artifacts that were stolen in the past.

However, NAGPRA is not without its faults. One classmate, Kate, pointed out how the narrow scope of the law makes it easy to get around. NAGPRA only applies to institutions that are either federally-owned or receive federal funds.[1] This leaves two glaring gaps in NAGPRA. One is that museums that receive no federal funding are exempt, and can continue to display stolen Native American artifacts unimpeded. The other is that private collectors can maintain collections of stolen and sacred artifacts.

This also opens a loophole for museums. As NAGPRA is now, nothing prevents federally-funded museums from accepting long-term loans from private collectors. This allows museums to display items that would be repatriated under NAGPRA without having to worry about repatriation. This is an ethical issue for museums. Where do the institutions loyalties lie? Is it their duty to see that the objects can still be displayed, or that they are returned to their rightful owners?

Personally, I believe that repatriation should be a higher priority.  Museums are supposed to be respectful of the cultures they represent, and refusing to return sacred objects undermines that goal. Sadly, the law here offers no real recourse. In any other case, a private collector would never be allowed to keep stolen goods. However, at the time these goods were stolen, it was legal to do so. Under US law, something cannot retroactively become a crime. The objects taken from Native American tribes were taken in a way that was legal at the time, and so cannot be legally confiscated now. The law’s hands are tied by America’s old imperialist policies. NAGPRA itself is only enforceable because it’s a condition of accepting government funding, rather than a law that applies to everyone.

So what can be done? One option would be to amend NAGPRA and close some of these loopholes, preventing NAGPRA-covered museums from accepting loaned artifacts that have been formally requested through NAGPRA. I’m not overly optimistic about this option. It would require Congress to take a nuanced approach to a relatively obscure issue, which is not something Congress does well or often. For now, we must change the museum field ourselves. We need to consider what we will display, and respect the still-living cultures that created them.

[1] “Frequently Asked Questions”, National NAGPRA, Accessed April 8, 2016,

Featured image from Wikimedia Commons


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