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Frequently Asked Questions


About this FAQ
National NAGPRA has developed answers to the most frequently asked questions regarding NAGPRA and its implementing regulations. For additional information on the specialized terms used in NAGPRA, see the NAGPRA Glossary.

What is NAGPRA?
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is a Federal law passed in 1990. NAGPRA provides a process for museums and Federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items -- human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony -- to lineal descendants, and culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations. NAGPRA includes provisions for unclaimed and culturally unidentifiable Native American cultural items, intentional and inadvertent discovery of Native American cultural items on Federal and tribal lands, and penalties for noncompliance and illegal trafficking. In addition, NAGPRA authorizes Federal grants to Indian tribes, Native Hawaiian organizations, and museums to assist with the documentation and repatriation of Native American cultural items, and establishes the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Review Committee to monitor the NAGPRA process and facilitate the resolution of disputes that may arise concerning repatriation under NAGPRA.


Who is responsible for complying with NAGPRA?
All Federal agencies are subject to NAGPRA. All public and private museums that have received Federal funds, other than the Smithsonian Institution, are subject to NAGPRA. (Repatriation by the Smithsonian Institution is governed by the National Museum of the American Indian Act of 1989, 20 U.S.C. 80q.)


What is the repatriation process under NAGPRA?
The principle steps of the NAGPRA repatriation process include --

  • Federal agencies and museums must identify cultural items in their collections that are subject to NAGPRA, and prepare inventories and summaries of the items.
  • Federal agencies and museums must consult with lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations regarding the identification and cultural affiliation of the cultural items listed in their NAGPRA inventories and summaries.
  • Federal agencies and museums must send notices to lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations describing cultural items and lineal descendancy or cultural affiliation, and stating that the cultural items may be repatriated. The law requires the Secretary of the Interior to publish these notices in the Federal Register.

For more information, go to Law and Regulations.


Who may claim Native American cultural items under NAGPRA?
NAGPRA recognizes claims by lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations.

An Indian tribe is any tribe, band, nation, or other organized group or community of Indians that is recognized as eligible for the special programs and services provided by the United States to Indians because of their status as Indians. The Department of the Interior has interpreted the definition of "Indian tribe" as applying to approximately 770 Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages that are recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

A Native Hawaiian organization includes any organization that: (a) serves and represents the interests of Native Hawaiians, (b) has as a primary and stated purpose the provision of services to Native Hawaiians, and (c) has expertise in Native Hawaiian Affairs, and includes the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and Hui Malama I Na Kupuna `O Hawai`i Nei. The Department of the Interior has interpreted this definition to also include the Hawaiian island burial councils and various 'Ohanas (extended families).


We are a nonfederally recognized tribe. May we still participate in the NAGPRA process?
Under NAGPRA, only Federally recognized Native American tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations may claim cultural items. NAGPRA does not require museums and Federal agencies to consult with nonfederally recognized tribes. However, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Review Committee has recognized that there are some cases in which nonfederally recognized tribes may be appropriate claimants for cultural items. Museums, if they wish, may consult with nonfederally recognized tribes. Museums and Federal agencies that wish to return Native American human remains and cultural items to nonfederally recognized tribes must make a request for review of a proposed disposition to the Review Committee.


Our museum has never submitted a NAGPRA inventory or summary, and we are concerned that we may be out of compliance. What should we do?
The National NAGPRA program recognizes that making collections information accessible to lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations is an important goal of NAGPRA. The National NAGPRA program provides technical assistance to museums and Federal agencies that need to prepare NAGPRA summaries and inventories for the first time. You may contact National NAGPRA staff by telephone or e-mail, and a staff member will be assigned to work with you. National NAGPRA staff members do not initiate civil penalties investigations.


What do "control" and "possession" mean?

NAGPRA says that museums and Federal agencies must prepare inventories and summaries of cultural items in their control or possession. "Control" means having a sufficient legal interest in human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony to lawfully permit the museum or Federal agency to treat the objects as part of its collection for purposes of NAGPRA, whether or not the museum or Federal agency has physical custody of the human remains or objects.

In other words, control is having a legal interest with or without physical custody, while possession is having physical custody. For example, if a museum has physical custody of Native American human remains or cultural items, but lacks legal interest (for example, when a museum is holding a collection on loan from another institution or a private collector), then the museum does not have control of these remains or items for NAGPRA purposes. For more information, see the NAGPRA Glossary and Law and Regulations.


What's the difference between "associated" and "unassociated" funerary objects in NAGPRA?
Both associated and unassociated funerary objects are cultural items that are reasonably believed to have been placed with individual human remains either at the time of death, or later as part of the death rite or ceremony of a culture. Under NAGPRA, funerary objects are considered to be "unassociated" if the human remains with which the objects were placed are not in the possession or control of a museum or Federal agency. Funerary objects are considered to be "associated" if the human remains with which the objects were placed are in the possession or control of a museum or Federal agency.

Note that a funerary object is an associated funerary object if the human remains are in the possession or control of any museum or Federal agency, not necessarily the same museum or agency that has possession or control of the funerary object. Also note that "associated funerary objects" includes those items that were made exclusively for burial purposes or to contain human remains.

For more information, see the NAGPRA Glossary and Law and Regulations.


What's the difference between "repatriation" and "disposition" as used in NAGPRA?
The term repatriation means the transfer of legal interest in Native American human remains and cultural items to lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations. The term disposition has been used for the Review Committee development of a process regarding culturally unidentifiable Native American human remains. The rule 43 CFR 10.11 became final March 2010. In effect, transfer of interest in Native American human remains and cultural items is repatriation, regardless of whether they are regarded as culturally affiliated or culturally unidentifiable.

In NAGPRA, the term disposition refers to the return of cultural items excavated or inadvertently discovered on Federal or tribal lands after November 16, 1990, to lineal descendants, Indian Tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations.

For more information, see the NAGPRA Glossary and Law and Regulations.


If Native American remains are discovered during a construction project, does NAGPRA apply?
The excavation and inadvertent discovery provisions of NAGPRA apply only to Federal and tribal lands. Under NAGPRA, tribal lands are lands (including private lands) within the exterior boundaries of an Indian reservation. If the burial ground is not on Federal or tribal land, then the excavation and inadvertent discovery provisions of NAGPRA do not apply. However, other State and Federal cultural preservation laws may apply, and State or local cemetery laws may also apply. For information on other State and Federal cultural preservation laws, contact your State Historic Preservation Office. For details on the excavation and inadvertent discovery provisions of NAGPRA, go to Law and Regulations.


We recently completed a repatriation. Can we apply for a NAGPRA repatriation grant to reimburse our costs?
No. Applications for NAGPRA repatriation grants must be submitted well in advance of repatriation activities. National NAGPRA recommends that repatriation grants be submitted at least 6 weeks in advance of the repatriation. For more information, go to Grants.


Our tribe is being overwhelmed by consultation requests related to Federal undertakings and inadvertent discoveries. Are there grant funds available to help?
NAGPRA authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to make grants to Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organization for the purpose of assisting such tribes and organizations in the repatriation of Native American cultural items. These grants are limited to activities related to the documentation and repatriation of collections from museums, and may not be used to fund consultation and other activities related to undertakings, inadvertent discoveries, and excavations. However, funds may be available through the National Park Service Tribal Preservation program. The Tribal Preservation program administers Historic Preservation Fund Grants to Indian Tribes, Alaskan Natives, and Native Hawaiian Organizations, which may be used for cultural preservation projects.


How many Native American human remains and cultural items have been repatriated since the passage of NAGPRA?
There is no single source for this information. While museums and Federal agencies are required to keep their own record of repatriations, NAGPRA does not require museums and Federal agencies to report repatriations to the Secretary of the Interior or to the National Park Service. Museums and Federal agencies are required, however, to publish notices in the Federal Register when they have determined that Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and/or objects of cultural patrimony are culturally affiliated and are eligible for repatriation. The National NAGPRA program compiles statistics yearly on the total number of Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural for which Federal Register notices have been published. The current statistics (updated on September 30, 2014) are as follows --

Human remains: 50,518 individuals
Associated funerary objects: 1,185,948 (includes many small items, such as beads)
Unassociated funerary objects: 219,956 (includes many small items, such as beads)
Sacred objects: 4,914
Objects of cultural patrimony: 8,118
Objects that are both sacred and patrimonial: 1,624

Our tribe's contact information in the Native American Consultation Database is incorrect. How can we update the information?
The contact information provided in the Native American Consultation Database (NACD) is based on the list of federally recognized Indian tribes maintained by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. To change your contact information as it appears in NACD, send a letter with the new contact information to National NAGPRA. The letter must be an original (no photocopies, please) on tribal letterhead, signed by an authorized tribal official.


Our museum has cultural items that were originally collected from Federal land. Does our museum have NAGPRA responsibility for these cultural items?
Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony that were originally from Federal lands are usually under the control of the Federal agency that managed or manages the land from which the human remains or other cultural items were removed. In such cases, it is the Federal agency, and not the museum, that has the responsibility for carrying out the NAGPRA process. The museum may wish to contact the appropriate Federal agency to discuss how the NAGPRA process will be completed. Museums should also be aware that Federal archeological collections in nonfederal repositories are also subject to Federal regulation 36 CFR 79, "Curation of Federally-Owned and Administered Archeological Collections." For more information, see Museums and the NAGPRA Glossary.


Does NAGPRA apply to cultural items that originate outside of the United States?

No. The NAGPRA regulations "apply to human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony which are indigenous to Alaska, Hawaii, and the continental United States, but not to territories of the United States" [43 CFR 10.1(b)(2)]. For more information, go to International Repatriation.


Our tribe has learned that a museum located in another country has control of cultural items that may be culturally affiliated with us. Does NAGPRA apply to institutions outside the United States?
No. NAGPRA is United States law, and applies to United States museums and Federal agencies. However, the United States does have agreements with many foreign nations regarding the movement of cultural property across borders. For more information, go to International Repatriation.

When is a written plan of action (POA) required under NAGPRA with respect to Federal lands?
Under the NAGPRA regulations (43 C.F.R. 10.3 and 10.5), a Federal agency must prepare, approve, and sign a POA if the agency intends to excavate or remove, or leave in place NAGPRA cultural items when these cultural items are exposed or are found already-exposed, and does not wish for activity in the area of the exposed cultural items to halt. Excavating or removing, or leaving in place cultural items under a POA is known as an "intentional excavation." Exposing or finding already-exposed cultural items without a POA is known as a "discovery." When a discovery occurs, any activity taking place in the area of the discovery must cease for 30 days. Under the regulations at 43 C.F.R. 10.4, the responsible agency official must initiate consultation on a discovery pursuant to section 10.5 of the regulations. Consultation, in turn, must be followed by an approved and signed POA (43 C.F.R. 10.5(e)). The regulations provide no exceptions to this rule. Thus, the  agency must prepare, approve, and sign a POA even if no on-going activity is to occur.  A POA must, at minimum, comply with the requirements at section 10.3(b)(1) of the regulations (which governs an "intentional excavation"). Following the effective date of the POA, exposing or finding already-exposed cultural items within the geographical area covered by the POA will be an "intentional excavation," and will be excavated or removed, or left in place according to the terms of the POA.

For more information, go to Law and Regulations.




 
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