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What is Repatriation?
Repatriation is the process whereby human remains and certain types of cultural items are returned to lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations.
What law covers repatriation at the Smithsonian Institution?
Repatriation activities at the Smithsonian Institution are governed by the National Museum of the American Indian Act (NMAIA), 20 U.S.C. §80q (Public Law 101–185), as amended by the NMAI Act Amendment of 1996 (Public Law 104–278). The NMAIA requires the Smithsonian to repatriate Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony from the collections to federally recognized tribes in the United States that are culturally affiliated with the items upon request. Two of the Smithsonian's museums, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) conduct repatriation activities for their respective collections in accordance with their own policies and procedures.
NMAI Repatriation Policy
The NMAI Repatriation Policy guides the Repatriation Department's efforts to address domestic and international repatriation issues. It recognizes repatriation as a human rights issue and embodies the mission and founding principles of the museum. The repatriation of human remains to their lineal descendants and/or communities of origin, regardless of geography or socio-political borders, has remained a high priority of the NMAI's Board of Trustees since 1991.
The policy discusses the categories eligible for repatriation, cultural affiliation, eligible claimants, burden of proof, appeals process, access to sensitive information, and steps in the repatriation process. It includes several sections that go above and beyond the law, such as expanded definitions of Human Remains, Funerary Objects, and Sacred Objects and the inclusion of repatriation provisions for culturally unaffiliated and culturally unknown Human Remains and Associated Funerary Objects.
At the NMAI, the following are categories eligible for repatriation:
- Human Remains
- Funerary Objects (Associated and Unassociated Funerary Objects)
- Sacred Objects
- Objects of Cultural Patrimony
- Illegally Acquired Items
The NMAI Repatriation Policy also includes repatriation provisions for Indigenous communities outside the United States. While not required by law, in the spirit of the domestic legislation and in accordance with its mission and recognition of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the NMAI will consider such repatriation requests on a case-by-case basis. These considerations are guided by the policy.
The Repatriation Program at the NMAI
The NMAI works closely with Native peoples and communities of the Western Hemisphere on repatriation cases. The museum proactively conducts repatriation casework to address the Human Remains and Associated Funerary Objects under its stewardship. The NMAI simultaneously conducts casework to address repatriation claims submitted by tribes. The NMAI's A Step-by-Step Guide through the Repatriation Process and the How Do I...? page provide detailed information regarding the repatriation process.