The Ongoing Struggle for Repatriation of Indigenous Artifacts

By Grace Stevens, AGE 13

Field Museum, South Lake Shore Drive. Chicago, IL. Photo by Walter Martin on Unsplash.

Field Museum, South Lake Shore Drive. Chicago, IL. Photo by Walter Martin on Unsplash.

Every ethnicity has an origin story, and the narrative of Native Americans has been marked by significant heartache and struggle. Many museums have created exhibits to honor the land stolen from them, yet they are inadvertently perpetuating the cycle of history. 

When Europeans first arrived in America in 1492, they engaged in constant conflicts with Native Americans. Over time, Native Americans have experienced land theft, mass genocide, segregation and discrimination. While steps have been taken to address these injustices and honor Indigenous communities, mere apologies and land acknowledgments are insufficient. 

During the 19th century, the United States pushed for westward expansion and encouraged the looting of Native American graves for artifacts, perpetuating a legacy of theft. Museums, particularly in the United States and Great Britain, have continued stealing from tribes.

Former Pueblo Governor Kurt Riley says, “These items of cultural patrimony, these aren’t items of art. They have life. When we see them being sold, it’s like they’re taking a piece of our family.” 

There have been several acts implemented to facilitate the return of artifacts to Indigenous peoples. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), enacted in 1990, mandates that museums repatriate Native American remains, sacred objects and funerary items back to their respective tribes. The regulation protects Native American and Native Hawaiian tribes by recognizing the significance of returning remains and artifacts to their native lands.

When NAGPRA was passed in 1990, it was estimated that ancestral remains would be returned to Native Americans within 10 years. Unfortunately, the passage of the act did not return the remains until early 2023.

Many institutions have been able to dismiss repatriation efforts by claiming that the origins of the artifacts are “unidentifiable.” By law, museums are required to conduct tests on certain objects to determine their origin for repatriation purposes. By labeling objects as “unidentifiable,” museums retain possession of the artifacts. Through constant relocation, approximately 85% to 90% of these artifacts are not officially documented. Consequently, the locations of these artifacts ceased to be recorded after a certain period, making it even more challenging to prove identification. 

While some museums keep artifacts using this clause, others fail to return all items in their possession. Frederic Ward Putnam, associated with museums like Harvard University’s Peabody Museum, the American Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum, organized the looting of Native American graves in Ohio for display at the Field Museum. While the museum has been held accountable, it has been found that they only returned 28% of the stolen remains. In response, the museum claimed the data was outdated, and asserted that it had returned all items. But they still hold 1,300 remains in custody. 

NAGPRA has a long way to go before significant progress is made, but it has started to encourage some museums to engage in more transparent discussions with tribes regarding their possessions, providing tribes with greater agency when determining the handling of their ancestral belongings. Establishing strong dialogue is crucial for tribes to feel genuinely respected by museums. The primary purpose of a museum is to preserve and honor the past, not steal it and exploit it for display. With this dialogue in place, the development of museum exhibits can become a more respectful and ethical process.

 Repatriate – To give back

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