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Repatriation Office
Department of Anthropology  
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Detail of Santo Domingo pot (NMNH catalog no. E418990A)
The Repatriation Process

The guiding principles of the repatriation program at the National Museum of Natural History are consultation and collaboration. The Museum encourages Native American representatives to become actively involved in all aspects of the process. Staff members provide access to museum collections and documentation, and assist in the use of museum records for research by Native visitors.

Apache visitors examining collections

Adella Swift (San Carlos Apache), Elisabeth Rocha (Camp Verde Apache), and Rebekah Smith (Camp Verde Apache) view Apache items at the Smithsonian's Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland. 1998, photo by Chuck Smythe, National Museum of Natural History.

Who may make a repatriation request?
Requests for the repatriation of Native American human remains and certain cultural objects may be made by lineal descendants of named individuals, federally recognized Native American tribes, federally recognized Native Alaskan Villages, and Native Hawaiian organizations.

How can tribes or lineal descendants make a request?
Tribal representatives should submit a repatriation claim in writing on tribal letterhead. Lineal descendants should also submit a repatriation claim in writing and need to submit evidence that they are lineal descendants.

Some Native American communities may determine that it is in their interest to defer a request for repatriation. Any decision by a Native group to refrain from making a repatriation request at the present time in no way precludes the possibility of making a request for return at a future date.

Steps in the Process: Documentation
Upon receipt of a written request for repatriation from the officials of the federally recognized native community, a lineal descendant, or their designees, the Repatriation Office initiates more detailed documentation work to establish or verify the origins and affiliations of the items or remains in question. Click here to learn more about the Documentation of Human Remains (pdf file) and Objects (pdf file).

Tribe members preparing remains for burial

Sam Starr, Nelson Wallalatum, and Wilford Yallup of the Warm Springs Confederated Tribes at the Yakama/Warm Springs repatriation, preparing remains for burial. December 1994. Photo by Scott Stuemke, © 1998.

Steps in the Process: Consultation
We encourage the Native American representatives to become involved at any point in this process and to contribute the results of their own independent or community-based research to the documentation effort. Requests for cultural objects are evaluated as to whether they fit the definitions of objects impacted by the law or covered by the Museum's right of possession. In the case of cultural objects additional consultation with the Native American representatives is generally necessary before an official response by the Museum can be finalized.

Steps in the Process: Preparing a Report
Based all available information, the Repatriation Office prepares a comprehensive report on the cultural origins of the objects or remains requested and makes recommendations for their dispositions. This report is forwarded to the Secretary of the Smithsonian for final approval. Once authorized, the report is distributed to culturally affiliated, federally recognized tribes and any other potentially affected parties. The report represents the Museum's official response to a repatriation request. To learn more about NMNH repatriation reports, visit the Repatriation Reports pages.

Visitors examining items

Risa Arbolino with Russel Barsh, Director, Center for the Study of Coast Salish Environments for the Samish Indian Nation, and Courtney Noble, law student, NYU at MSC. 2002, photo by Elizabeth Eubanks, National Museum of Natural History.

Steps in the Process: The Logistics of Repatriation
Following the review of the report by the requesting Native community, and depending upon the particular circumstances of the case, arrangements may be made for return following a 30-day period for public notice.

If the Museum offers to repatriate remains or objects, the Repatriation Office will work closely with the designated Native American representatives to prepare for the return.

Should there be any special requirements with respect to the packing and transfer of the collections, the Museum will make every effort to accommodate these requests. In addition, the Repatriation Office will cover travel expenses of two Native American representatives to assist in preparing collections for return. See travel grants to find out more.


Developing Partnerships between Native Communities and the National Museum of Natural History
In addition to the legally authorized return of culturally affiliated human remains and objects, Native groups may wish to consider alternatives to repatriation or reburial. Working together, the Museum and Native communities may develop other solutions to the disposition of culturally sensitive materials. Such alternatives can include long-term loans, secured storage, or a decision to allow human remains or objects to be retained by the Museum under the joint care of the institution and the Native community. See the Traditional Care Policy Statement (pdf file) of the National Museum of Natural History to learn more.

Through the repatriation process, the Museum 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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