NAGPRA revisions aim to streamline repatriation process

By Molly Bryant, Puyallup Tribal News

Recent updates to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) are important for Tribal communities nationwide, including the Puyallup Tribe. In the recent revisions, which were enacted on Jan. 12, the U.S. Department of the Interior aims to expedite the repatriation process.

The legislation requires federally funded museums, universities and other institutions to consult with lineal descendants, Native American Tribes and Native Hawaiian Organizations, identify and report all Native American human remains and cultural items in inventories and give notice before repatriating.

Additionally, the revised definition of “cultural items” now encompasses a broader range of ancestral heritage items, and increased authority is given to the Tribes. Thanks to the new changes to NAGPRA, Indigenous knowledge is given consideration that is equal to university professors and scholars, as Historic Preservation Director Brandon Reynon adds, it always should have been.
The new revisions address historical challenges in which institutions cited a lack
of evidence for repatriation. With the updated legislation, Indigenous knowledge will be given more credibility.

Originally enacted in 1990, NAGPRA aimed to address the wrongful removal of Native American human remains and funerary objects, which are gifts that were given to ancestors who had passed away to help them on the other side. These include beads, stone tools, basketry, woven cedar and more.

The Department of the Interior sought to rectify the injustices by ensuring the repatriation of human remains and cultural items to their respective Tribes and families. However, the process has taken longer than initially expected. Loopholes have allowed many museums and institutions to retain Native American human remains and cultural items. While Elders and Indigenous knowledge often provide answers for where items should be repatriated, many institutions make excuses for not returning them.

For decades, museums, universities and other institutions have stored and exhibited Native American human remains, burial items and other cultural objects, many of which are sacred.

Throughout the 1800s, non-native archaeologists and ethnographers stole human remains and associated items found in Native American burial sites and sacred locations. According to Reynon, “All throughout our history, our graves from our ancestors have all been dug up, robbed and looted.”

Many institutions grew collections without regard for the spiritual and cultural significance of the ancestral heritage items. This resulted in the dispersal of ancestral remains and cultural items, leading to a tragic loss of cultural identity for many Tribes.

The Puyallup Tribal Historic Preservation Department has laid the groundwork for repatriation at the Puyallup Tribe. Reynon gives credit to those who came before them, such as Judy Wright, former Puyallup Tribal historian, and Maggie Edwards, former Puyallup Tribal Council Chairwoman who led efforts in repatriation.

Since 2009, the Historic Preservation Department has repatriated approximately 100 South Sound ancestors, including 34 Puyallup ancestors. In the Puyallup Tribal cemetery, there is a section dedicated to ancestors’ remains, as well as when funerary objects are found, they can be returned to the rightful ancestor.

Looking to the future, Reynon anticipates that more institutions will begin reaching out to repatriate items due to the NAGPRA revisions. While he states that the update is by no means perfect, he said it is something they can work with.

The Historic Preservation Department hopes to eventually open something reminiscent of a heritage center, steering away from the word “museum” to better reflect the living nature of our culture. Reynon said, “We don’t like that word, it means dead stuff. We’re obviously not dead. We want people from all around our region to learn. We’re still here. Come learn about us!”