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Looking Back on NAGPRA: Partial Successes, But More to Be Done

Mark Duggan

Joe Watkins, American Indian liaison with the National Park Service, talks to KSUT's Mark Duggan about the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, which turns 25 next month.



Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, also known as NAGPRA, in 1990, in an effort to build bridges between Native American cultural and spiritual beliefs, and the field of archeology.

NAGPRA codified how federally-funded museums and other institutions collected and exhibited Native American artifacts. Cultural items such as human remains and sacred objects had to be returned to any tribe that claimed a connection to them, a process known as repatriation.

NAGPRA's passage was commemorated with a series of events in Durango this week, culminating with a talk by Joe Watkins, PhD.

Watkins is the supervisory anthropologist and American Indian liaison for the National Park Service, and a member of the Choctaw Tribe. He's also one of a small group of Native American archeologists, and mediated artifact repatriation between archeologists and indigenous peoples.

Watkins was cautious in his assessment of NAGPRA's successes, noting that some aspects of the law only recently took effect, such as how to handle human remains that are culturally unidentifiable.

Compliance is sometime an issue, too, according to Watkins, when organizations don't realize they qualify as museums, or understand the importance of artifacts they possess.

Credit Mark Duggan
Pots lined up in a glass case at the Canyon of the Ancients Museum near Dolores, Colo.

“Some groups don't recognize that there are particular objects that they have within their collections that meet the definitions of sacred object, or object of cultural patrimony,” Watkins said.

Often, a repatriation claim by a tribe for certain objects lets organizations see the deeper significance of what's in their collections.

“We can't possibly recognize it,” said Watkins, “because we don't have the stories, the training, the understanding to appreciate the reality of that artifact's relationship with the cultural group that created it.”

According to Watkins, NAGPRA is still a partial success, in that it improved communication between archeologists and Native peoples, and brought a lot of important cultural pieces home.

“It has allowed tribes to regain some of the objects they may have lost in the 1800s and early 1900s.”

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