FAQs & Resources

FAQs

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.

Where is the NMAI Repatriation Department located?

The Repatriation Department is located at the museum's Cultural Resources Center (CRC) in Suitland, Maryland.

How do I get a grant for a consultation visit or repatriation?

The NMAI does not require a formal grant application. The Repatriation Department will work directly with the lineal descendant or tribal representative to organize and underwrite the consultation visit or repatriation in accordance with the NMAI Repatriation Policy. For more information, see the Repatriation Guide.

Are there other significant Native American collections in the Washington, D.C., area?

Yes, several D.C.-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.

Does the Repatriation Department offer internships?

Yes, applications are accepted through the NMAI's Internship Program.

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?

The NMAI does not formally assist individuals or organizations with this work, but the following organizations may be able to offer some guidance:

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.

National Repatriation Laws

Additional Repatriation Resources

NMAI Repatriation in the Media

Definitions

Alaska Native village, group, or corporation

  • As defined by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, "Native village" means any tribe, band, clan, group, village, community, or association in Alaska, and which the Secretary determines was, on the 1970 census enumeration date, composed of twenty-five or more Natives;
  • "Native group" means any tribe, band, clan, village, community, or village association of Natives in Alaska composed of less than twenty-five Natives, who comprise a majority of the residents of the locality;
  • "Group Corporation" means an Alaska Native Group Corporation organized under the laws of the State of Alaska as a business for profit or nonprofit corporation to hold, invest, manage and/or distribute lands, property, funds, and other rights and assets for and on behalf of members of a Native group;
  • "Urban Corporation" means an Alaska Native Urban Corporation organized under the laws of the State of Alaska as a business for profit or nonprofit corporation to hold, invest, manage and/or distribute lands, property, funds, and other rights and assets for and on behalf of members of an urban community of Natives.

Associated funerary objects

Objects that, as a part of the death rite or ceremony of a culture, are reasonably believed to have been placed with individual human remains either at the time of death or later, and both the human remains and associated funerary objects are presently in the possession or control of the NMAI.

Cultural affiliation

A relationship of shared group identity that can be reasonably traced historically or prehistorically between a present-day Indian Tribe or Native Hawaiian Organization and identifiable earlier group.

Deaccession

To remove an object from a collection; at the NMAI this is done only through action of the NMAI Board of Trustees.

Federally-recognized tribe

American Indian communities with a government-to-government relationship with the United States as established by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and its Office of Federal Acknowledgment.

Human remains

Human remains mean the physical remains of a human body, or any part thereof, whether or not naturally shed, freely given, or culturally modified. In some contexts, human hair may be considered human remains. For purposes of this policy, it is assumed that all human remains in the collection are of Native American ancestry unless otherwise known.

Illegally Acquired Items

Any materials acquired by or transferred to NMAI illegally or under circumstances that render invalid the museum's claim to them.

Indian tribe

Any tribe, band, nation, or other organized group or community of Indians, including any Alaska Native village or regional corporation (as defined in, or established pursuant to, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act), which is recognized as eligible for the special programs and services provided by the United States to Indians because of their status as Indians.

Lineal descendant

An individual tracing his/her ancestry directly and without interruption by means of the traditional kinship system of the appropriate Indian Tribe or Native Hawaiian Organization or by the common law system of descent to a known Native American individual whose remains, funerary objects, or sacred objects are being claimed.

Native Hawaiian

Members or descendants of the aboriginal people who before 1778 occupied and exercised sovereignty in what is now the State of Hawai'i.

Native Hawaiian Organization

Any organization that serves and represents the interests of Native Hawaiians, has a primary and stated purpose of the provision of services to Native Hawaiians, and has expertise in Native Hawaiian affairs.

NMAI Board of Trustees

The Board of Trustees has the sole authority within the NMAI to deaccession items. They are also subject to the general policies of the SI Board of Regents (see Section 5(c)(1) of the NMAI Act).

Objects of cultural patrimony

Objects with ongoing historical, traditional, or cultural importance central to the Indian Tribe or Native Hawaiian Organization or culture, rather than property owned by an individual Native American and which, therefore, cannot be alienated, appropriated, or conveyed by any individual regardless of whether the individual is a member of the Indian Tribe or Native Hawaiian Organization. The given object shall have been considered inalienable by the Indian Tribe or Native Hawaiian Organization at the time the object was separated from said group.

Repatriation

The process of returning American Indian human remains and certain cultural objects from museum collections to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated Indian tribes, Alaska Native clans or villages, and/or Native Hawaiian organizations. This also includes returns to Native communities outside the United States.

Sacred objects

Objects needed by traditional Native American religious leaders for the practice of Native American religions, including objects needed for the renewal of a religious practice.

Unassociated funerary objects

Objects that, as a part of the death rite or ceremony of a culture, are reasonably believed to have been placed with individual human remains either at the time of death or later, and the human remains are not in the possession or control of the NMAI or Smithsonian Institution.