Who is eligible to submit a repatriation claim and/or request a repatriation consultation?

The NMAI Repatriation Department welcomes repatriation claims and consultation requests from lineal descendants, official representatives of Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations. Requests by non-federally recognized Indian tribes in the United States and First Nations and Indigenous communities outside of the United States are addressed on a case-by-case basis.

For more information please refer to the NMAI’s A Step-by-Step Guide through the Repatriation Process.

Does the NMAI conduct repatriations outside of the United States?

Yes. In Canada, First Nations have a political relationship with their government similar to the political relationship between the United States government and federally recognized tribes. As such, the NMAI works directly with Canadian First Nations on a government-to-government basis. In Latin America, where there is not an equivalent political relationship for Indigenous communities, the NMAI establishes a government-to-government relationship through proper diplomatic channels to work directly with communities on repatriation matters.

How do I request an inventory?

Lineal descendants, Indian tribes, or Native Hawaiian organizations interested in pursuing a repatriation claim can write, email, or complete an online form to request information related to culturally affiliated human remains or cultural items under the NMAI’s stewardship.

Requests should include relevant details, such as any names by which an individual or tribe has been known (e.g., traditional names), and geographical areas of interest (e.g., countries, states, counties, provinces, and sites). The Repatriation Department will provide an electronic inventory in PDF format.

What is a repatriation consultation?

Repatriation consultations allow for better communication and understanding of cultural perspectives by Repatriation staff, and of museum policies and protocols by potential claimants. Repatriation staff provide claimants with an overview of the repatriation legislation for Smithsonian museums, the NMAI Act and its amendment, and the NMAI Repatriation Policy and procedures. A consultation may include a general review of the culturally affiliated collections or a specific review of categories or types of objects that are of significant interest to the individual or tribe.

When appropriate, the NMAI and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) will conduct joint consultations at the tribe’s request. Pending funding availability, joint consultations typically take place over four days, with two days at each museum, in addition to two travel days.

How do I request a repatriation consultation?

Lineal descendants may submit a request for consultation along with documentation establishing their relationship to the human remains of the known individual or cultural items.

Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations should submit a request for consultation and provide official documentation that identifies the representative authorized to conduct repatriation business on behalf of the tribe or organization.

Official tribal representatives typically include Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (THPOs), NAGPRA representatives, and individuals authorized by their Native community government to conduct repatriation issues on behalf of the tribe.

For more information, please refer to the NMAI’s A Step-by-Step Guide through the Repatriation Process.

What is required in a formal repatriation claim?

All repatriation claims must be received in written format by post or electronically.

Formal requests by a lineal descendant do not require the claim to be authorized by the culturally affiliated tribe or written on tribal letterhead. However, the claim should include documentation establishing the claimant’s relationship to the human remains of the known individual, funerary object, or sacred object.

Formal requests by tribes should be submitted on official tribal letterhead and signed by the designated authority to conduct repatriation business on behalf of the tribe.

Formal repatriation requests should include:

  • The NMAI catalog number for each item;
  • The name or description of the item as cataloged by the NMAI and/or known to the lineal descendant or tribal claimant;
  • The cultural affiliation of the human remains or items under claim;
  • The repatriation category for each item under claim: Human Remains, Associated Funerary Object, Unassociated Funerary Object, Sacred Object, or Object of Cultural Patrimony;
  • An explanation as to why each item under claim meets the repatriation category definition. If an item is claimed under more than one definition, a rationale should be included for how each item meets each repatriation category;
  • For lineal descendant claims, a family genealogy and other supporting documentation establishing the lineal descendant’s relationship to the human remains, funerary objects, or sacred objects.

The claimant will receive official notification from the NMAI Repatriation Department that the claim has been received and accepted. Should there be any issues, the Repatriation Manager will work directly with the claimant to ensure that the basic requirements for the claim have been met.

Does the NMAI support travel and expenses related to repatriation claims?

The Repatriation Department will work directly with the lineal descendant or tribal representatives to organize and underwrite consultation visits for two authorized representatives for two days to visit collections and consult on repatriation matters. Additional representatives or repeat visits to the museum are welcome at the travelers’ expense.

Upon approval by the Board of Trustees, the NMAI will also assist with the physical return of human remains and/or cultural items. The NMAI will collaborate with communities or individuals to ensure that they are prepared for transport in the most culturally appropriate way possible.

How many sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony are under the NMAI’s stewardship?

It is not possible to provide an exact number because it is at a tribe’s discretion to assert what they believe to be considered a sacred object or an object of cultural patrimony. Tribes have their own internal deliberative processes for decisions on matters as sensitive as these, which the NMAI respects.

Other than the NMAI Act, is there another law in the United States that governs the repatriation of Native American human remains and certain cultural items?

Yes. The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) provides a process for non-Smithsonian 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, culturally affiliated Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations.

Are there other significant Native American collections in the Washington, DC, area?

Yes, several DC-area institutions hold significant Native American collections. The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) has a large Native American collection. The National Anthropological Archives also has extensive collections of documents, photographs, and recordings pertaining to Native Americans, First Nations, and other Indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere. The Library of Congress has a large collection of recordings, and Dumbarton Oaks has an extensive collection of Mesoamerican materials.

If museums or auction houses outside the United States have Native American collections, can the NMAI help repatriate them?

The NMAI does not have authority to compel institutions, organizations, or auction houses domestically or abroad to repatriate items to their culturally affiliated communities. There are no United States laws that currently address this issue. Within the United States, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA), NAGPRA, and UNESCO limit what types of Native American materials, such as eagle feathers, may be acquired or sold. Outside of the United States, UNESCO may apply in narrow circumstances.

How do I return a Native American item or collection to its community or place of origin?

Does the NMAI offer digital repatriation?

Digital repatriation is not considered repatriation according to the NMAI Act; however, it is part of the NMAI's standard practice to provide electronic copies of photos and records during repatriation consultations. Digital records may also be obtained directly through NMAI Archives and NMAI Collections.