Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and Bannerstones

by Anna Blume

Professor of the History of Art
Fashion Institute of Technology
State University of New York
May 2024

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After decades of thefts and desecrations, upon the persistent requests of Native Americans, the United States Congress passed NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. This act protects the funerary remains of Native Americans, that is, their bodies and objects placed with these bodies in burials.[1] Under this law, Native American human remains and funerary objects are protected from being disturbed or excavated unless permissions have been granted by Native American tribes or lineal descendants. Funerary objects already in federal agencies or in museums and institutions that receive federal funding are to be made available to lineal descendants who have the right to request their repatriation, and in many cases, their reburial. In the newly revised NAGPRA laws of December 2023, who qualifies as a lineal descendant “requires deference to Native American traditional knowledge.”[2] This shift in the law recognizes Native American epistemological perspectives about who they are and what they have made and continue to make into and beyond the present. Whatever the aims of post-Enlightenment science or the elucidating potential of the exhibition of objects may be, these ideological motivations must be negotiated with and in light of the desires, memories, practices, and philosophical underpinnings of Native American people and their descendants.

According to the records of the collections we have studied, none of the bannerstones on the Archaic Bannerstone Project website were taken from human burials. For insight and perspectives about photographing bannerstones and the ABP website in general, we are grateful for the advice of Nekole Alligood (Delaware Nation), NAGPRA specialist at the Ohio History Connection. Our considerations and the decisions we make reactivate bannerstones into the present, some seemingly calling out to tell stories of ancient Native American stone work dating back to 6000 BCE. Bannerstones that were intentionally buried with their dead require a different kind of regard. Whenever possible, these funerary bannerstones should be repatriated to Native American tribes and lineal descendants similar to the way the remains of the Ancient One—known as Kennewick Man—were returned to members of the Columbia Plateau tribes and reburied on February 18th, 2017 in an undisclosed location along the Columbia river in the state of Washington.[3][4]

[1] National Parks Services. NPS Archeology Program: The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), accessed 02/15/2024, https://www.nps.gov/subjects/archeology/napgra.htm

[2] Code of Regulations. National Archives and Records Administration. Title 43, Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Regulations. Accessed 05/03/2024, https://www.ecfr.gov/current/title-43/subtitle-A/part-10

[3] Armand Minthorn, “Human Remains Should be Reburied,” Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Sept. 1996. Accessed April 30, 2024 https://web.archive.org/web/20140812090048/http://ctuir.org/kman1.html

[4] Kristi Paulus, “Kennewick Man finally buried by local tribes,” in keprtv.com Fe. 20, 2017. Accessed April 30, 2024. https://keprtv.com/news/local/kennewick-man-finally-buried-by-local-tribes