NAGPRA, A Human Rights Statute

by Ben Hunter

Personal photo of Maria Pearson/Ames Historical Society

In 1971, highway crews in southwest Iowa uncovered 28 human remains. The remains of the 26 white individuals were reburied; the remains of a Native American woman and her baby girl were boxed and sent to the State Archaeologist.  Maria Pearson, an outraged Yankton Sioux activist, visited the State house to see Iowa Governor Robert Ray.   Ray credits Pearson for drawing the government’s attention to the discriminatory treatment of Native American human remains in Iowa.  The ensuing debate over new burial legislation led to the passage of the Iowa Burials Protection Act of 1976. The Iowa legislation served as a model for graves protection reform.  Pearson and other graves protection activists went on to lobby for federal graves protection reform and eventually succeeded with the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

NAGPRA was signed into law in November of 1990. The statute requires that museums, federal agencies, and any institutions that receive federal money create an inventory of any human remains or funerary objects in its collection. The institution must consult with lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations to determine if there is a known cultural affiliation of the remains or funerary objects. After the consultation, the institution makes a determination whether the remains are either culturally affiliated or culturally unidentifiable. If the museum determines that the remains or funerary objects are culturally affiliated to a tribe, then the remains must be offered to the tribe for repatriation. Continue reading “NAGPRA, A Human Rights Statute”