The Work of Repatriation in Indian Country

By Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Chip | Human Organization, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview
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The Work of Repatriation in Indian Country

Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Chip, Human Organization

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) is widely acknowledged to have had a profound effect on museum practice and policy over the last two decades. Museum professionals and practicing anthropologists have published extensively on their experiences and perspectives. However, far less serious and systematic attention has been given to how NAGPRA has been implemented in Indian country. This paper provides the results of an online survey of tribal repatriation workers to help establish a baseline understanding of their personal backgrounds and motivations, their viewpoints of how the legislation has impacted Native communities, their experiences in employing the law, and their collective vision for NAGPRA's uncertain future.

Key words: NAGPRA, repatriation, labor, law, web survey, Native Americans


In 1990, the United States Congress passed into law the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). One of NAGPRA's central elements establishes a process that provides tribes the opportunity to claim from museums certain kinds of objects and ancestral human remains from federal agencies and institutions that have received federal funding (McKeown 2008). This expansive law has transformed the relationship between Native Americans and the hundreds of museums across the United States that hold Native American cultural items and human remains (Fine-Dare 2002; Killion 2008; Mihesuah2000).1

Despite NAGPRA's broad impacts, scholarship has principally focused on positive case studies (Fenton 1989; Merrill, Ladd, and Ferguson 1993), historical explanations and accounts (Bieder 1992; Harper 2000), implementation guidance (Abraham, Sullivan, and Griffin 2002; Wilde and Brown 2003), philosophical and paradigmatic deliberations (Blair 1979; Zimmerman 1992), and legal arguments (Bruning 2006; Hutt 2004). With such an impassioned subject, combative and anecdotal accounts predominate in the literature (Deloria 1992; Meighan 1994). Many highlight singular conflicts, such as the so-called Kennewick Man controversy (Ray 2006; Watkins 2004). Particularly absent in this dialogue - and, thus, absent in the conceptual view of many interlocutors - is an understanding of repatriation workers who are themselves Native American or are employed by tribal governments. Where tribal repatriation workers have participated in the dialogue, they have generally been keenly insightful but limited to arguing specific cases or sharing personal experiences, often their frustrations (e.g., Ayau and Tengan 2002; Hill 2006), rather than providing a systematic attempt to illuminate how NAGPRA is applied in practice across Indian country.2 Yet, there are currently 565 federally recognized tribes and hundreds more Indian groups, Native Alaskan corporations, and Native Hawaiian Organizations, all of which have a potential legal, political, and cultural role in the daily work of implementing the United States' primary repatriation law.

Tribal repatriation workers are a vital part of NAGPRA's political economy. Tribes are the main counterpoint to museums, the central focus of the law's mandate of consultation, the communities that make the claims that remove items from museums, and the law's intended foremost beneficiary (McKeown and Hutt 2003). By ignoring this key segment of the labor force in the repatriation industry, the law's full range of impacts and effects remain unknown. Even more than two decades after the law's passage, there is little critical understanding of how tribal repatriation workers became involved in this work, their perceptions of the law's progress, their experiences of the law's impact on their communities, and their views of the law's uncertain future. This paper presents the summary results of one of the first published surveys of tribal repatriation workers, to provide an entry point to more systematically evaluate how NAGPRA has impacted Native communities and their advocates.

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