In the midst of a display of Mimbres pottery, the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology has this… somewhat passive aggressive comment on NAGPRA.
NAGPRA is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a U.S. federal law passed in 1990 that requires museums and federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items to their tribes of origin.
On the face of things, NAGPRA’s pretty simple — if human remains, funerary objects, or objects sacred to a tribe are found on federal or tribal lands, they need to be returned to the descendants of their original owners, for handling in accordance with their cultural beliefs and traditions. In practice, though, things get a bit trickier — particularly when it comes to identifying “lineal descendants and culturally affiliated” tribes when an artifact is hundreds or thousands of years old. Even Kennewick Man (some 9,000 years old) got caught up in this process. And then, of course, repatriated items are no longer available for scientific study.
Still, at its core, NAGPRA is really just a legal codification of the principle that Native American remains and funerary goods should be treated with the same respect as is due to remains of any other race. And it’s not as if there aren’t ample historical examples of disrespectful treatment of such remains.
This display left me deeply disappointed, as it seems a better approach could have been taken that would actually be thought-provoking rather than just provocative and more than a little petulant.