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Kiva ruins, Pecos National. Photo by Alexander Salopek, August 26, 2023.

NAGPRA: An Attempt to Correct the Past

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The following is a guest post by Alexander Salopek, a collection development specialist in the Collection Services Division of the Law Library of Congress. He previously wrote posts on Fred Korematsu’s Drive for Justice, Fred Korematsu Winning Justice, What a Difference 17 Years Made, and Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.

Recently, I took a trip to the Pecos National Historic Park. While visiting the museum, I read about the repatriation of Native remains to Pecos, New Mexico. When I read about that, I was shocked that this happened in the first place, and wanted to learn more about the history.

Pecos National Historical Park ruins of the Pecos Pueblo Mission Church. Photo by Alexander Salopek, August 26, 2023.


Maria Pearson, a member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, was having a normal day when her husband came home and talked about his day at work. (Bataille et al., 131.) He knew she wouldn’t like it, but neither of them knew the extent to which this conversation would define her legacy. He was working at the Iowa Department of Transportation, and a graveyard was found. All the bodies from the graveyard were reburied except the body of a Native woman and her baby, which the state archeologist took for further study. (Bataille et al., 134.) After hearing this news and taking time to think – the next day Maria Pearson dressed in her traditional regalia and traveled to the governor’s office to act as the ambassador of her people. (Starr, 4.) She argued it was wrong to dig people’s remains up and keep them as exhibits and study objects while other people’s remains were allowed to be reburied. She quickly convinced the governor, and ultimately told the press that she would will her body to the State of Iowa so they would not have to dig her up. (Starr, 9.) Her advocacy first led to the woman and her child being reburied, the same as the Europeans who had been found. (Starr, 10.) She did not stop there; she advocated until the passage of the Iowa Burials Protection Act of 1976, the first legislation of its kind in the country. This new legislation protected the graves of Native remains. After this start in Iowa, this movement for protective legislation led to the passage fourteen years later of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

At the turn of the century, to combat the high levels of looting on federal land in the West, Congress passed the Antiquities Act of 1906 – which “defined dead Indians interred on federal lands as ‘archeological resources’ and, contrary to long-standing common-law principles, converted these dead persons into ‘federal property.’” (Trope & Walter, 42.) This act permitted anyone to dig up Indigenous dead and bring the bodies and funerary objects to museums for study. (Fine-Dare, 62.)

In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a movement to attempt to correct the wrongs of the past concerning Native peoples in the United States. Examples of laws that were passed and signed into law include the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and the National Museum of the American Indian Act. There was consensus in Congress that legislation was needed, but it was not yet determined what it would look like at that time. (Richman & Forsyth, 172.) The archeologists and museums were concerned because of a variety of issues, including an “expensive, adversarial, and lawyer-dominated process” and those groups felt like they were making good-faith efforts to rectify these issues independently. (Colwell, 105-106) Native activists worked with archeologists and came up with a solution that worked with both groups and forged a new future together. (Chari and Lavallee, 27) NAGPRA Pub. L. 101-601, 104 STAT. 3408 passed both houses of Congress with a voice vote and was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush.

NAGPRA was designed to more effectively and responsibly deal with the graves of Indigenous people – including human remains and funerary objects – and community-owned objects found on federal and tribal lands. (Trope & Echo-Hawk, 59.) The law also established procedures for future excavations that importantly include the consent of Native people. (Fine-Dare, 118.) The act also required that institutions create summaries of their holdings to be able to determine if items should be returned when requested by the tribes. (Chari & Lavallee, 33.) The act included provisions against trafficking of remains, starting at a US $100,000 fine and up to a year prison sentence with a US $250,000 fine and 5 years in prison for subsequent violations. (Trope & Echo-Hawk, 73.) With these strict custody provisions and legal penalties, the act was trying to make up for the wrongs of the past, and work towards a more collaborative future to resolve these issues.


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