Frequently Asked Questions

Questions and Answers session at NAGPRA at 20 Symposium

NPS Photo.

For general information on NAGPRA, see Getting Started.

For the text of the law and regulations, see Law and Policy.

For detailed information on NAGPRA, consult the Reference Library.

What is NAGPRA?

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is a Federal law passed in 1990. NAGPRA provides processes 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, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations. NAGPRA authorizes Federal grants to Indian tribes, Native Hawaiian organizations, and museums to assist with the documentation and repatriation of Native American cultural items. NAGPRA 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. Violations of NAGPRA are addressed through criminal and civil enforcement.

Who is responsible for complying with NAGPRA?

All Federal agencies are subject to NAGPRA. All museums (any institution, university, state agency, or local agency that receives Federal funds) are also subject to NAGPRA. The Smithsonian Institution is not subject to NAGPRA, but repatriates under the National Museum of the American Indian Act of 1989, 20 U.S.C. 80q.

Who may request Native American cultural items under NAGPRA?

NAGPRA provides for requests by lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations.

A lineal descendant is an individual tracing his or her ancestry directly and without interruption by means of the traditional kinship system of the appropriate Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization or by the common law system to a known Native American individual whose remains, funerary objects, or sacred objects are being requested.

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 Bureau of Indian Affairs publishes annually a list of Indian Tribes in the Federal Register. To find contact information and reservation boundary information, use the current Bureau of Indian Affair's Tribal Leaders Directory.

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. The Department of the Interior has interpreted this definition to include 'ohanas (Native Hawaiian kin groups). A list of Native Hawaiian organizations that meet the above definition can be found at In accordance with Hawaii State law, the Island Burial Councils also maintain lists of appropriate Hawaiian organizations, agencies, and offices to notify regarding the discovery of human remains in the Hawaiian Islands.

Can a nonfederally recognized Indian group participate in the NAGPRA process?

NAGPRA does not require museums and Federal agencies to consult with nonfederally recognized Indian groups. However, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Review Committee has recognized that there are some cases in which nonfederally recognized Indian groups may be appropriate requestors for cultural items. Museums, if they wish, may consult with nonfederally recognized Indian groups. Museums and Federal agencies that wish to return Native American human remains and cultural items to nonfederally recognized Indian groups must make a request to the Review Committee.

What kind of items are covered under NAGPRA?

Cultural item means human remains, associated funerary objects, unassociated funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony.

Human remains means the physical remains of the body of a person of Native American ancestry.

Funerary object means an object that, as a part of the death rite or ceremony of a culture, is reasonably believed to have been placed with individual human remains either at the time of death or later. Funerary objects may be either associated or unassociated.

Sacred object means a specific ceremonial object which is needed by traditional Native American religious leaders for the practice of traditional Native American religions by their present day adherents.

Object of cultural patrimony means an object having ongoing historical, traditional, or cultural importance central to the Native American group or culture itself, rather than property owned by an individual Native American, and which, therefore, cannot be alienated, appropriated, or conveyed by any individual regardless of whether or not the individual is a member of the Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization and such object shall have been considered inalienable by such Native American group at the time the object was separated from such group.

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 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 control of a museum or Federal agency.

Note that a funerary object is an associated funerary object if the human remains are in the control of any museum or Federal agency, not necessarily the same museum or agency that has 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.

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 provides technical assistance to museums and Federal agencies that need to prepare NAGPRA summaries and inventories for the first time. You may contact the National NAGPRA Program, and a staff member will be assigned to work with you.

Our museum has cultural items that were originally collected from Federal land. Does our museum have NAGPRA responsibility for these cultural items?

It depends. 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."

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?

Not likely. NAGPRA applies to United States museums and Federal agencies. However, cultural items removed from Federal land may be in foreign institutions and subject to NAGPRA. For more information on repatriation outside the United States, visit the Department of the Interior's International Repatriation website.

Who is financially responsible for expenses associated with consultation and repatriation, including potential hotel and travel for tribal representatives?

NAGPRA does not dictate who is financially responsible for consultation or repatriation costs. Either a museum or an Indian tribe (but not a Federal agency) could apply for grant funds to cover costs associated with consultation or repatriation.

Are grant funds available for my Indian Tribe, Native Hawaiian organization, or museum to do NAGPRA work?

Yes. NAGPRA authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to make grants to Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations for the purpose of assisting such tribes and organizations in the repatriation of Native American cultural items. NAGPRA also authorizes the Secretary to make grants to museums for the purpose of assisting them in conducting the inventories and identification required under the Act. See Grants for more information.

Are grant funds available to help Indian Tribes or Native Hawaiian organizations offset costs related to consultation on Federal undertakings?

No. NAGPRA grants are limited to activities related to the documentation and repatriation of cultural items, and may not be used to fund consultation activities related to Federal undertakings. 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, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiian organizations, which may be used for cultural preservation projects.

We recently completed a repatriation. Can we apply for a NAGPRA repatriation grant to reimburse our costs?

It depends. Applications for NAGPRA repatriation grants should be submitted well in advance of repatriation activities, as any repatriation-related costs incurred prior to having signed a grant agreement in place are done so at the applicant's own risk and there is never a guarantee of funding. Signed pre-award cost approval from the National Park Service Financial Assistance Awarding Officer is required. Costs incurred in a previous fiscal year or prior to the publication of a Federal Register notice and the required 30-day waiting period will not reimbursed. Contact the National NAGPRA Program for more information.

Is there a difference between "transfer of control" and "transfer of custody"?

Yes. Under NAGPRA, transfer of control is the transfer by a museum or Federal agency of all the museum or Federal agency's legal interest in a cultural item in its holding or collection to an appropriate lineal descendant, Indian Tribe, or Native Hawaiian organization. Transfer of custody, on the other hand, is the physical transfer of a cultural item by its custodian, along with any attendant responsibility of care for the item, in a manner and place determined in consultation with an appropriate lineal descendant, Indian Tribe, or Native Hawaiian organization. Much of the time, control and custody are in the same entity, but not always. For example, where a Federal agency collection is in a non-Federal repository, the Federal agency has control of the collection and the repository has custody of the collection.

Transfer of control and transfer of custody of cultural items might occur simultaneously, but not necessarily. Transfer of custody could occur sometime after transfer of control or transfer of control could occur without transfer of custody occurring at all.

The National NAGPRA Program administers the Secretary of the Interior's grants to assist in the physical transfer of cultural items to Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations. Before a repatriation grant can be given, the museum or Federal agency must have first transferred control of the cultural items to the Indian Tribe or Native Hawaiian organization. The National NAGPRA Program has provided a Transfer of Control Letter Template for this purpose.

Until such time as it transfers control of cultural items in its holding or collection, a museum or Federal agency must consider every request for items received from a lineal descendant, an Indian Tribe, or a Native Hawaiian organization having standing to make the request. After it transfers control of the cultural items, that obligation no longer exists. Consequently, museums and Federal agencies might wish to transfer control of cultural items in their holdings or collections at the earliest opportunity allowable under NAGPRA and its implementing regulations.

Where can I find tools for NAGPRA compliance?

Tools for NAGPRA compliance can be found in:

  • Databases providing detailed information on NAGPRA compliance.
  • Templates in MS Word format for complying with NAGPRA.
  • Reports on a variety of NAGPRA topics.

Last updated: December 4, 2023


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