Congress passes Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act on November 16, 1990.

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 11/06/2003
  • Essay 5603
On November 16, 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA - 25 U.S.C. §3001 et seq.) passes the 101st Congress. The law addresses the rights of lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations to human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. The act causes a dispute over the nature of a 9,000-year-old skeleton known as Kennewick Man found along the Columbia River in 1996.

The Act required museums and archives to generate an inventory of traditional Native American items held. Various agencies also reported on sites and locations of relics within their jurisdictions. Additional discoveries are reported as they came to light.

Kennewick Man

On July 28, 1996, the bones known as Kennewick Man were found in the shallows of the Columbia River near Columbia Park, Washington. The U.S. Government seized the bones and ruled that the remains were Native American because they predate 1492. The Government ordered the remains turned over to the Umatilla, Yakama, Colville, Wanapum, and Nez Perce tribes in Eastern Washington.

Eight anthropologists, including two from the Smithsonian Institution, filed suit to examine the remains. Preliminary forensic examination suggested an individual different from the typical pre-historic Native American.

The bone fragments were taken to the Burke Museum at the University of Washington on October 29, 1998, where scientists examined them. The remains had already been determined to be 9,000 years old, but attempts to extract DNA were unsuccessful.

On September 25, 2000, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbit decided that the remains of Kennewick Man are "culturally affiliated" with Native Americans and ordered them turned over to five tribes in eastern Washington. On August 30, 2002, a Federal magistrate judge in Portland rejected the Interior Department's findings and ordered that scientists be permitted to examine the remains. On February 4, 2004, a panel of judges for the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Portland judge's decision, ending the legal battle, but not the controversy.

The Burke's Role in Repatriation

The Burke Museum has more than 40,000 specimens in the ethnology collection and more than one million objects in the archaeology collection. Most are of Native American origin. The museum has devoted approximately 43,000 staff hours at a cost of $1.2 million to inventorying objects and returning many. The museum works closely with some 30 tribes in Washington state, assisting them in reviewing artifacts and in planning for their care upon return.

Some tribes are creating tribal museums to exhibit the objects. Others prefer to have the Burke Museum exhibit them in trust. The most difficult issue for tribes across the nation is that of human remains. Some tribes are creating new cemeteries to rebury the remains.

The Burke Museum has one of the most sweeping Native American policies in the country. The museum voluntarily prepares biannual inventories of new acquisitions to keep tribes informed.

James Nasson, University of Washington professor of anthropology, heads the repatriation effort at the Burke. Nasson explains, "We have tended to be far more proactive and supportive to tribes than most other museums have, and we have one of the best reputations in the nation because of it. We have helped tribes to see how this can work" (A & S Perspectives).

One example of a repatriation is the return of two Tlingit houseposts to Cape Fox Village in southeast Alaska in July 2001. The Harriman expedition to Alaska had stolen the houseposts in 1899.

The Tlingits received the houseposts with great ceremony and celebration. "They consider the poles their relatives," says Robin Wright, curator of Native American art at the Burke, who made the trip back with the posts. "To think they had been separated this long, and now come back, was very moving" (A&S Perspectives).

The housesposts will be installed in a new community center near the long-abandoned Cape Fox site. "These things contain our tribal history, tell us who we really are," Tlingit repatriation manager told the Chicago Tribune. "These things will make our grandchildren proud of who they are" (A&S Perspectives).

Sources: "NAGPRA - Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act," U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Website (; "Examination of Kennewick Man Skeletal Remains to Begin," U.S Department of the Interior Press Release, February 17, 1999 (; Aviva L. Brandt (The Associated Press), "Suit Over Kennewick Man Revived," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 26, 2000 ( local/kenn261.shtml); James C. Chatters, "Kennewick Man," Arctic Center Studies Website, 1997, (; "Heading Home: The Burke Museum Returns Artifacts to Northwest Tribes," A & S Perspectives Vol. 13, No. 1 (Autumn 2001), 14-15.
Note: This essay was updated on November 17, 2004.

Related Topics:   Law | Northwest Indians

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