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Detail of Pomo Basket  (NMNH catalog no. E327989)
What is Repatriation?

Repatriation at the National Museum of Natural History
Repatriation is the process by which museums and other institutions transfer possession and control of Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian human remains, funerary objects, objects of cultural patrimony and sacred objects back to the tribes of origin. For the museums that comprise the Smithsonian Institution, the National Museum of the American Indian Act (NMAI Act), passed in 1989 and amended in 1996, governs repatriation. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed in 1990, directs repatriation for other U. S. institutions that receive federal funding.

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Gordon L. Yellowman, Sr., Southern Cheyenne NAGPRA Representative, and Robert W. Fri, Director, National Museum of Natural History, sign a cooperative agreement placing funerary objects of a Cheyenne child in the care of the museum. From left to right, standing: Rosita Worl (with back to camera), Charles W. Smythe, Jennie and Alden Whiteman, Connie Hart Yellowman, Lawrence Hart, and Thomas W. Killion; seated: Gordon L. Yellowman, Sr., and Robert W. Fri. 1998, photo by Gervaise Purcell, National Museum of Natural History

About the Repatriation Office
The Repatriation Office was established in 1991 to implement the statutory requirements of the NMAI Act. This law and its amendment assert the right of Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian peoples to determine the disposition of culturally affiliated human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony currently in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution. Our policy (pdf file) also directs us to consider requests for the repatriation of the remains of Native American individuals whose identity is known, and objects acquired illegally. Repatriation at the National Museum of Natural History is intended to be a collaborative process, by which both staff and Native peoples work together to determine the future of human remains and cultural objects. To learn more about the collections subject to repatriation, visit the Collections pages.

Major Native American collections are at two separate Smithsonian museums: the National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of the American Indian. The Repatriation Office represents the National Museum of Natural History for repatriation claims. Claims to the National Museum of the American Indian should be directly addressed to the Repatriation Program at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Doll examination

Bill Billeck and Gordon Yellowman (Southern Cheyenne) examine a doll made in the likeness of a child of Arapaho sub-Chief Sharp Nose. 2001, photo by Betsy Bruemmer, National Museum of Natural History
 

The Repatriation Office is located on the National Mall, in the National Museum of Natural History building. Tribes are encouraged to consider sending representatives to visit the museum to discuss repatriation matters. Visits can be funded through grants from the Repatriation Review Committee. To learn more about consultations, and the repatriation process, visit the Consultation and Repatriation pages. To find contact information for our staff, visit the Contact Us page.

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Blackfeet tribe

Blackfeet Tribe of Montana Repatriation. 1989, photo by Leslie Logan, National Museum of Natural History

One of the primary tasks of the Repatriation Office at the National Museum of Natural History is to inventory and assess the cultural origins of collections potentially affiliated with contemporary Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian peoples in the United States and produce reports on these findings. Another of its principal functions is to respond to requests for information and/or requests for the return of human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony affiliated with Native groups. To learn more about the information contained in these inventories and repatriations reports, visit the Repatriation Reports pages.

The Repatriation Review Committee
The NMAI Act required that the Smithsonian establish a special committee to monitor the repatriation process. The committee is required to ensure fair and objective consideration of all relevant evidence, upon request of any affected party, review any findings of cultural affiliation, and facilitate the resolution of any dispute between the museum and tribes and between tribes concerning the repatriation of remains and objects. This external committee consists of seven members, two of whom are required by law to be traditional Native American religious leaders. Visit the Repatriation Review Committee website to learn more about it.

John McCain

Elizabeth Blackowl, President of the Pawnee Tribe, witnessing the presentation of a blanket to Arizona Senator John McCain by fellow Pawnee Vance Horsechief at a National Museum of Natural History and U.S. Army repatriation ceremony. Fort McNair, Washington, D.C., June 6, 1995. 1995, photo by Jane Beck, National Museum of Natural History
 

The Legacy of Repatriation
The museum maintains its anthropological collections and exhibits in order to cultivate understanding of and respect for cultures throughout the world, including those indigenous to the United States. While repatriation can be a relatively simple process resulting in the physical return of human remains and objects, it can also be the first step in establishing a close working relationship between Native peoples and the museum.

Repatriation Office

Dorothy Lippert (Choctaw, Repatriation Office), Bobby Gonzales and Lyman Kinoute of the Caddo Tribe of Oklahoma, and Bill Billeck (Repatriation Office). 2002, photo by Repatriation Office staff, National Museum of Natural History
 

The National Museum of Natural History encourages Native communities to contact the museum and discuss repatriation or other issues relating to the collections. Through the repatriation process, the National Museum of Natural History hopes to develop new partnerships with Native communities that will lead to greater understanding and respect for the cultural heritage of Native peoples.

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DEFINITIONS

Culturally affiliated human remains
The legislation defines these as human remains with whom a demonstrable relationship of shared group identity can be shown to an existing federally recognized American Indian tribe, Alaska Native Village or Regional Corporation or Native Hawaiian organization, based on a preponderance of evidence.

Associated and Unassociated Funerary Objects
Funerary objects are items that, as part of the death rites of a culture, are believed to have been intentionally placed with an individual at the time of death or later. An object is considered to be "associated" if the human remains with which it was originally interred are present at the National Museum of Natural History.

Sacred Objects
These are specific ceremonial objects that are needed by traditional Native American religious leaders for the practice of traditional Native American religions by their present-day adherents.

Objects of Cultural Patrimony
An object having ongoing historical, traditional, or cultural importance central to the Native American group or culture itself, rather than property owned by an individual Native American, and which, therefore, cannot be alienated, appropriated, or conveyed by any individual regardless of whether or not the individual is a member of the Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization and such object shall have been considered inalienable by such Native American group at the time the object was separated from such group.

Remains of Individuals whose Identity is Known
The return of the remains of named individuals to lineal descendants was an established priority for the National Museum of Natural History, even prior to the passage of the NMAI Act. This policy continues to be in effect. Very few of the individuals whose remains are in the collections of the National Museum of Natural History are known by name.

Objects Acquired Illegally
In accordance with long-standing Smithsonian policy, the National Museum of Natural History may repatriate any materials acquired by or transferred to the National Museum of Natural History illegally or under circumstances that render invalid the Museum's claim to them.

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Smithsonian Institute - National Mueseum of Natural History