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International Repatriation

NAGPRA has a place within the global movement towards recognition of the cultural property rights of indigenous peoples. Many declarations, resolutions, and policies of international organizations and nongovernmental groups reflect a trend towards promoting and protecting rights of indigenous peoples. The decade 1995-2004 was proclaimed by the United Nations as the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People.

Answers to Some Common Questions

Does NAGPRA apply to institutions outside the United States?

No. NAGPRA is United States law, and applies to United States museums and Federal agencies.

Does NAGPRA apply to cultural items from Federal lands that are in repositories outside the United States?
Yes, if the cultural items are in the control of the Federal agency from whose lands the cultural items originated. For example, if a Federal agency loaned the cultural items to an international institution, or if the cultural items were excvated from Federal lands under an Antiquities Act permit, then NAGPRA would apply.

Between 1906, when the Antiquities Act was passed, and 1979, when the Archeological Resources Protection Act was passed, Antiquities Act permits were issued by the Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, and War, according to the department that had control of the lands on which excavations would take place.

According to 43 CFR 3, "Jurisdiction over ruins, archeological sites, historic and prehistoric monuments and structures, objects of antiquity, historic landmarks, and other objects of historic and scientific interest, shall be exercised under the act by the respective Departments."

An NPS study of permitting procedures between 1906 and 1935 indicates that approximately eight permits were issued in those years to institutions or individuals outside the United States. Permits issued after 1935 have not been systematically analyzed. In some cases, permits were issued to foreign individuals with some affiliation to a public institution in the United States.

Two repatriations of cultural items from Federal lands in museums or institutions outside of the United States have occurred under NAGPRA --

  • A Notice of Inventory Completion was published in the Federal Register by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Alaska State Office, on September 4, 1996 (see FR Doc. 96-22495) for material that had been removed from BLM lands on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, in the 1970s and taken to the University of Berne, Switzerland. Because the Antiquities Act permit was issued to the University of Alaska Museum, the museum asked for the return the materials so that it could fulfill its curatorial responsibilities.
  • A Notice of Inventory Completion was published in the Federal Register by the U.S. Forest Service on August 6, 1997 (see FR Doc. 97-20634) for human remains that were removed from Forest Service lands in Alaska during excavations by the University of Pennsylvania and the National Museum of Denmark (Copenhagen) in the 1930s. At the close of the excavations, the human remains were taken to Denmark and remained there until their repatriation.

Can NAGPRA grants be used to assist with international repatriation or collections documentation?

No. NAGPRA grants cannot be used to assist with the repatriation or documentation of cultural items that originate from outside the United States. In addition, NAGPRA grants cannot be used to repatriate or document cultural items that are controlled by foreign institutions.

Which other countries have laws and/or policies similar to NAGPRA?

Australia passed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Act in 1984 (and its Amendment in 1987). The purpose of the Act is the preservation and protection from injury or desecration of "areas and objects in Australia and in Australian waters, being areas and objects that are of particular significance to Aboriginals in accordance with Aboriginal tradition." In addition to this Federal law, most states and mainland territories in Australia also have specific legislation.

Canada has developed a policy of repatriation of cultural property to Canadian First Nations, though it has not passed legislation. Some Canadian museums also have voluntary repatriation policies.

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was established in 1991 under the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Canada. Its statement of policy can be found in the 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, accessible at

A number of professional and museum organizations have issued ethics guidelines that advocate the repatriation of human remains and cultural items to indigenous communities both in and outside of Canada. Individual museums have also issued repatriation policies that make explicit their commitment to assisting indigenous communities in reclaiming ancestral human remains and cultural items.

In the early 1990s, through a joint project of the Canadian Museum Association and the Assembly of First Nations, a task force was established to develop an ethical framework and strategies for aboriginal peoples and cultural institutions to work together. The task force identified three key issues: increased involvement of aboriginal peoples in the interpretation of their culture and history by cultural institutions, improved aboriginal access to museum collections, and the repatriation of artifacts and human remains. Excerpts of the report "Turning the Page: Forging New Partnerships between Museums and First Nations," can be accessed at (The excerpts form a part of the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.)

At its annual meeting in 1996, the Canadian Archaeological Association passed its "Statement of Principles for Ethical Conduct Pertaining to Aboriginal Peoples," and in 1999, the Canadian Museums Association issued ethical guidelines on the exhibition of human remains and funeral items, specifying that cultural items need to be handled in a careful and respectful manner, in full consultation with the appropriate cultural group.

The Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia has placed its Repatriation Guidelines online. The guidelines (along with other documents relating to First Nations' collections) are available as a downloadable document at

The Laboratory of Archaeology, University of British Columbia recognizes its responsibility to develop close working relationships with First Nations that have a claim to or interest in the cultural material and human remains in its care. The laboratory outlines procedures for requesting information about collections and makes its repatriation policy available at

England's Working Group on Human Remains was established by the Minister for the Arts as a result of recommendations in "Cultural Property: Return and Illicit Trade," a report prepared by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, and published in July 2000. Also instrumental in the establishment of the Working Group was a meeting between the prime ministers of Australia and the United Kingdom in London in July 2000.

In August of 2001, the Working Group on Human Remains issued an invitation for the submission of evidence on the following six points --

  1. To examine the current legal status of human remains within the collections of publicly funded museums and galleries in the United Kingdom
  2. To examine the powers of museums and galleries to deaccession or release human remains and to consider the desirability and possible forms of legislative change in this area.
  3. To consider the circumstances in which materials associated with human remains might be included in any proposed legislative change.
  4. To take advice from interested parties.
  5. To consider the desirability of a statement of principles relating to the curation of human remains and requests for return
  6. To prepare a report and recommendations which might form the basis for a consultation document (to be used for consultation under the Regulatory Reform Act of 2001).

The deadline for the submission of contributions was November 30, 2001. The report by the Working Group on Human Remains, compiled from information received from interested parties, was submitted to the Minister for the Arts and was formally released by the minister on November 14, 2003.

The report is by an independent advisory committee, and does not necessarily reflect government policy. However, the Working Group on Human Remains Terms of Reference state that the report will form the basis of a consultation document. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport proposes to issue the consultation document early in 2004. The results of this consultation will inform the government's response. Regarding the possibility of legislation, the report notes that the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport recommended consultation on legislation to permit national museums to remove human remains from their collections. The report is available at

What are the international instruments for the repatriation of cultural property to its country of origin?
The Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property was adopted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris in 1970. The Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation was established by the General Conference of UNESCO, and held its first session in 1980. The main concern of the Convention has been with assisting art-source countries that are UNESCO members in recovering items exported illegally to art-market countries that are UNESCO members.

The Convention (and the legislation) can only assist the United States in recovering stolen cultural property if it was removed from the United States after the enactment of the Convention; the Convention is not retroactive. The United States ratified the convention in 1983.

The United States ratified the Convention in 1983. The Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (19 U.S.C. 2600), the implementing legislation in the United States, defines the conditions under which the United States will take action to protect the cultural property of other state parties to the Convention. Most market countries are not signatories to the Convention. If material was stolen or looted, the United States can seize the material only if it has a bilateral agreement with that country. The United States has agreements with or has taken emergency action to protect archeological and/or ethnological materials in nine countries: Bolivia, Canada, Cyprus, El Salvador, Guatemala, Italy, Mali, Nicaragua and Peru. These are primarily emergency measure agreements, the main purpose of which is to curtail pillaging of sites in countries with whom the United States has the agreement.

The 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects seeks to establish common legal rules for the restitution and return of cultural objects between state parties to its Convention.

The Draft United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was agreed upon by members of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1993. To date, 2 of the 45 articles have been ratified. It is expected that it will take many years to adopt the Declaration.

Are there particular instruments for repatriation to or from the United States that involve Canada and Mexico?

As noted above, the United States has a bilateral agreement with Canada through the Cultural Property Implementation Act. The Agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of Canada Concerning the Imposition of Import Restrictions on Certain Categories of Archaeological and Ethnological Material was signed on April 10, 1997. The agreement restricts importation into the United States of certain cultural property representing Aboriginal cultural groups in Canada. The agreement also allows for cooperation between the two countries to recover cultural property that entered Canada in violation of United States laws.

A Treaty of Cooperation between the United States of America and the United Mexican States Providing for the Recovery and Return of Stolen Archaeological, Historical and Cultural Properties was signed in 1970 (prior to the UN Convention) and is concerned primarily with return of items stolen from Mexico that are currently in the United States.

Are there nongovernmental organizations that are involved in repatriation across borders?

ICOM: the International Council of Museums, in its Museums and Cultural Diversity Policy, presented to the Executive Council of ICOM by the Working Group on Cross Cultural Issues in December 1997, identified repatriation as one of its key issues. See

World Archaeological Congress: the Vermillion Accord (adopted in 1989 at the WAC Inter-Congress, South Dakota) calls for respect for treatment of mortal remains. Text at:
See also: WAC Code of Ethics at

A World Archaeological Congress November 2003 statement endorses the report commissioned by the British government recommending the return of human remains wherever possible and appropriate from both public and private collections in the United Kingdom.

Are there cases of voluntary international repatriation that involve the United States?

  • The National Museum of the American Indian is in the process of repatriating human remains and cultural items to indigenous groups in the Americas. To date, it has undertaken repatriations to indigenous groups in Peru, Cuba, and Canada.
  • Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, Scotland to South Dakota Historical Society. A Ghost Dance shirt that had been in the Kelvingrove Museum since 1892 was returned to the Wounded Knee Survivors Association (WKSA). In April 1995 a WKSA delegation visited Glasgow to negotiate for the return of the shirt, and in November 1998, the Glasgow City Council voted to repatriate it. Under a curation agreement with the WKSA, the South Dakota State Historical Society will provide for the security and preservation of the Ghost Dance shirt until WKSA is able to build a museum of its own.
  • Chief Long Wolf from a London cemetery, where he was buried in 1892, to the Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. Elizabeth Knight of Worcestershire, England, discovered the grave and contacted tribal members in 1992. Reburial took place at the Pine Ridge Reservation in September 1997.
  • American Museum of Natural History, transferred human remains to Haida Gwaii of Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia, Canada, in September 2002.
  • Oakland Museum transferred one set of human remains to Haida Gwaii in September 2002.
  • National Museum of Denmark and United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Chugach National Forest, transferred human remains to Alaskan villages represented by Chugach Heritage Foundation (see Notice of Inventory Completion, Federal Register, August 6, 1997)
  • A mummy, thought to be the remains of the pharaoh Ramses I, who ruled Egypt from 1320-1318 B.C., was returned by the Michael Carlos Museum, Emory University, Atlanta to Egypt in November 2003. It is thought that a Canadian collector bought the mummy for the Niagara Falls Museum around 1860 from an Egyptian family, who had stumbled on a tomb filled with royal mummies at a site near Luxor. The museum at Emory University acquired the mummy in 1999 and voluntarily returned it to Egypt following negotiations with Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. See the BBC News, October 26, 2003, "Egypt's 'Ramses' mummy returned" at

What other voluntary international repatriations have taken place or are in progress?

  • The repatriation of a totem pole from the Swedish Museum of Ethnography, Stockholm, to the Haisla Nation of British Columbia, Canada is in progress. The totem pole was removed from near Prince Rupert, British Columbia, in 1929. Negotiations for the return of the totem pole began in 1991. In 1994, Sweden granted permission for return of the pole, with the condition that it be placed in a state-of-the-art climate controlled facility.The Haisla Nation is currently involved in raising funds for such a facility.
  • The Canadian Museum of Civilization has undertaken a number of voluntary repatriations. In 1995, a repatriation was undertaken to the Six Nations Council (Ontario). In 1998, a large collection of human remains (over 80 individuals) from a site in southeastern Ontario was transferred to the Mohawk National Council of Chiefs. In 2000, the Canadian Museum of Civilization returned between 100 and 150 human remains to the Haida Gwaii.
  • Edinburgh University, the Royal College of Surgeons in London, and the Australian Museum in Sydney repatriated approximately 300 aboriginal Australians to the Ngarrindjeri people of south Australia. Aboriginal leaders say that 5,000 to 8,000 sets of remains are still being held by museums in the United Kingdom. See the BBC article of May 5, 2003, "Aborigine remains return home," at
  • In July 2003, the Marischal Museum at the University of Aberdeen announced its decision to return a horned head-dress with an eagle feather trailer to the Blood Tribe in Canada. A return ceremony took place at the museum and ownership was transferred to the Blood Tribe's Mookaakin Cultural and Heritage Foundation. The head-dress was then to be taken to Canada.


United Nations Press Kit, "Indigenous people: Challenges facing the international community."

Center for World Indigenous Studies.

Haisla Totem Pole Repatriation Project.

U.S. Department of the Interior, Office of Indian Trust: "U.S. Indian Tribal Governments and U.S. International Affairs."

Indian Law Resource Center, Washington, DC, "United States Human Rights Policy: Indigenous Peoples, 2001, a policy Paper."

Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (Canada).

Organization of American States, "The Role of Museums and Heritage Institutions in the Promotion and Preservation of the Cultural Patrimony."

International Council of Museums (ICOM), Museums and Indigenous Peoples Bibliography. (Special section on Repatriation / Collection Ethics)

Illicit Antiquities Research Centre at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge University.

"International Dimensions." National Museum Directors' Conference.

The United Kingdom Parliament conducted an inquiry through the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport on March 23, 2000, in which they discussed the role of the Foundation for the Repatriation of Ritual Objects, its relationship with the United States Government, and its trustworthiness in terms of assisting with repatriation of American Indian cultural property in United Kingdom museum.


James S. Anaya, Indigenous Peoples in International Law. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000)

N. Brodie and K. Tubb (eds.) Illicit Antiquities: The Theft of Culture and the Extinction of Archaeology. (London: Routledge, 2002)

Cressida Fforde (ed.) World Archaeological Bulletin 6 (1992)
Volume devoted to issues surrounding collections of human remains in Europe, with an introduction by Peter J. Ucko.

Cressida Fforde, J. Hubert, and P. Turnbull (eds.) The Dead and their Possessions: Repatriation in Principle, Policy and Practice. (London: Routledge 2002)

H. Leyten (ed.) Illicit Trade in Cultural Property: Museums against Pillage. (Amsterdam: Royal Tropical Institute, 1995)

H. Matunga, “The Maori delegation to WAC2: presentation and reports,” World Archaeological Bulletin 5, 53 (1991)

Randall H. McGuire, "Working Together on the Border," SAA Bulletin 13:5 (1995).
The article deals with the author's Sonoran research and interaction with several American Indian nations, especially the Tohono O'odham people.

P. M. Messenger (ed.), The Ethics of Collecting Cultural Property. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999)

P. O’Keefe, “Maoris claim head,” International Journal of Cultural Property 2 (1992)

T. Shek, “Can dust remain dust? English law and indigenous human remains,” Art Antiquity and Law 5 (2000)

UNESCO World Commission on Culture and Development, Our Creative Diversity (1995)
This policy-oriented report is based on a multifaceted exploration of the relationship between "culture" and "development." The capstone of the report is its international agenda, a set of 10 actions to transform 21st century development strategies.

C. Woodhead, “A debate which crosses all borders – the repatriation of human remains: more than just a legal question,” Art, Antiquity and Law 7 (2002)


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