Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
On November 16, 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves
Protection and Repatriation Act, known as NAGPRA. This expansive
law establishes a process -- called repatriation -- for museums to
return cultural items and human remains. Over the last 20 years,
NAGPRA has radically changed the relationship between Native
Americans and museums.
"We feel we have an ethical obligation to try and solve the
problems that museums themselves created," said Dr. Chip
The Denver Museum of Nature & Science has sought new
beginnings with many tribes. The Museum recently returned to the
Tlingit of Alaska the "Strongman Housepost Robe." Worn in
ceremonies for decades by members of the Gaanaxteidi Clan, this
dramatic robe was furtively sold in the 1970s when art dealers
began offering small fortunes for these kinds of cultural objects.
Years later, when members of the Gaanaxteidi Clan learned that the
robe had been donated to the Museum, they began consulting with
Museum officials. In 2009, the Museum repatriated the robe to the
clan, and it is now worn again in ceremonies.
However, perhaps the most difficult and emotional aspect of
NAGPRA is human remains. Since 2008, the Museum has received three
grants from the National Park Service to address the disposition of
human remains that could not be affiliated with any single tribe.
The Museum has consulted with more than 142 U.S. tribes and has now
come up with agreements for the remains of more than 50
"The goal is to repatriate all remains, move beyond this legacy
that we've inherited, and repair our relationships with Native
American communities. We continue working with the tribes to ensure
that these remains are reverently, and finally, laid to rest," said
Creating Collaborative Catalogs
"Usually, when anthropologists are looking to expand their
collections, they go into a community, take an object, describe it
using their own anthropological terms, put it in storage, and add
the information into a database. It's a very one-way process," said
Dr. Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh.
Creating Collaborative Catalogs: Using Digital Technologies to
Expand Museums is a three-year project to develop an innovative
open-source, online collaborative catalog system so museums can
gather indigenous perspectives while maintaining the museum's
Unlike most museums catalogues that are "closed" to the very
communities that created the objects, this new system will allow
information from tribal members to be incorporated into the
database. The goal of the project is to create a refined
model that museums can use to include Native American perspectives
within their community context.
The Denver Museum of Nature & Science will begin this project
by focusing on approximately 550 objects in our collections from
the Pueblo of Zuni, in New Mexico. The database will allow for a
two-way flow of information, including the Museum's descriptions,
as well as text, video, audio, and additional photos and drawings
from the Pueblo of Zuni community.
"We're looking to work together to create a common understanding.
It's the personal interpretations that give life and real value to
objects," said Dr. Colwell-Chanthaphonh.
UCLA is partnering with the Denver Art Museum, Museum of
Northern Arizona, Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Cambridge
Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, and A:shiwi A:wan Museum
and Heritage Center on this project.
Repatriation and Reconciliation
Since the passing of the Native American Graves Protection and
Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the Denver Museum of Nature &
Science has invested time and energy into ensuring that Native
American cultural objects and human remains return to the tribes in
which they belong. But what happens after they go back?
Dr. Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh is conducting an ethnographic
project to study whether the return of these objects and remains
has led to the healing of the wounds of history.
"Often when these objects went missing from the tribes, it led to
social turmoil and spiritual crises. What I want to find out is if
the return of these objects has really led to the process of
healing, and if it has brought these communities back together,"
said Dr. Colwell-Chanthaphonh.
The project explores three central questions. First, in what ways
have the moral obligations of repatriation shifted people's beliefs
and behaviors, as well as museum policies and strategies? Second,
why and when does repatriation become a form of restorative
justice? And third, how are perceived ethical duties about
repatriation negotiated within and between tribes and museums?
These questions are investigated using a survey of federally
recognized tribes along with interviewing community leaders and
elders from four regions in the United States.
Funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research,
the findings will be written in journal articles and a book for the
general public that will tell the life stories of repatriated