How Do I...

How do I know if I am eligible to submit a repatriation claim?

The NMAI Repatriation Department welcomes repatriation claims from lineal descendants, official representatives of Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations.

The NMAI also considers repatriation requests for all defined categories of claim by non-federally recognized Indian Tribes in the United States and First Nations and Indigenous Communities outside of the United States on a case-by-case basis.

How do I request an inventory?

Lineal descendants, Indian tribes, or Native Hawaiian organizations interested in pursuing a repatriation claim can write or email the Repatriation Department to request information related to culturally affiliated human remains or cultural items under the NMAI's stewardship. (View sample request.)

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.

For non-repatriation-related questions about the NMAI's collection, contact Collections. View a selection of the NMAI's collections online through NMAI Collections Search.

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, funerary object, or sacred object. (See sample letter for lineal descendant request for consultation visit.)

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. (See sample letter to request a repatriation consultation visit.)

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.

How do I prepare for a consultation visit at the NMAI?

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.

The NMAI will underwrite travel and lodging expenses 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.

When appropriate, the NMAI and the 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.

Before the consultation:

  • Review inventory to identify objects of specific interest and/or concern for discussion during the consultation visit.
  • Provide a list of objects to review during your consultation visit. To the extent possible, Repatriation staff will transfer the requested objects to a private work space for viewing.
  • Inform Repatriation staff in advance about any relevant cultural protocols to observe during the consultation. The Cultural Resources Center (CRC) has indoor and outdoor ceremonial spaces available.
  • Review definitions in the NMAI Repatriation Policy specific to each category of claim.
  • A delegation may include traditional or religious leaders who can speak to specifics about an object's intended use or purpose.

Additional considerations:

  • Authorized representatives are free to take photographs during the consultation. Repatriation staff can also photograph objects and provide the images electronically, typically before the end of the consultation.
  • Please feel free to share any information about the appropriate care of culturally sensitive items with Repatriation staff. Repatriation staff include this traditional knowledge in the museum's object record.
  • You may request to visit the NMAI Archives Department during your consultation, but will need to budget consultation time accordingly.
  • Typically, you will receive a digital copy of any photographs associated with your community as part of your consultation visit. You may also request a digital copy of any relevant archival records.

How do I make 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. (View sample letter for a lineal descendant repatriation claim.)

Formal requests by tribes should be submitted on official tribal letterhead, signed by the designated authority to conduct repatriation business on behalf of the tribe. (View sample letter for a tribal repatriation claim.)

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.

How do I bring approved repatriated items home?

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