“How would you like it if your grandmother’s bones were on display?”
Agua Caliente tribal member
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was enacted in 1990. The act provides that human remains, funerary and cultural objects found on tribal or federal lands must be turned over to the most likely descendants of those objects and remains.
Museums receiving federal funding were directed to inventory their collection within one year of passage of the act and notify the most likely descendants of human remains, funerary and cultural objects in the museum’s possession. If the most likely descendants request repatriation of
the remains and objects, they must be returned to the tribe.
Over ten years later, many museums are still not in compliance with the act. Some museums have limited budgets and claim that they do not have the resources to inventory their complete collection and notify the most likely descendants. The penalty for noncompliance, denial of additional federal funding, only exacerbates this problem. Thus far NAGPRA has not been effective in achieving its goals.
An additional problem is encountered when trying to repatriate remains in that some tribes do not believe that the dead should be disturbed. They therefore do not want their remains returned. Other tribes have divisions within the tribe as to whether to display cultural remains.
In addition to NAGPRA, Califonria has a law that mirrors NAGPRA for all museums and agencies receiving state funds. In addition, California Public Resources Code 5097.5 provides protection on all public lands in the state of California, other than federal lands. It is a crime in California to excavate, remove, destroy, or injure burial grounds, rock art or any other archaeological features and makes violation of this law a crime.