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Repatriation of Human Remains: Domestic Cases

Resources for facilitating the return of ancestral remains and examining the issue from a critical historical perspective

Repatriation in the United States of America

In the United States, most comprehensive legal mechanism for the repatriation of human remains is the 1990 Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, more commonly referred to as NAGPRA. The purpose of NAGPRA is to facilitate the assessment, monitoring, and ultimate return of funerary objects objects that are in institutional holding. In passing it, the U.S. Congress affirmed that human remains "must at all times be treated with dignity and respect" and sought to operationalize this by providing a formal method of facilitating respectful return. NAGPRA requires that all institutions which receive federal funding to transfer human remains and associated funerary objects to their original source communities. In addition to mandating the creation of committees for review, NAGPRA articulates penalties and legal restitution for institutions that fail to meet minimum compliance. 

Over the course of three decades, NAGPRA has facilitated the repatriation of 50,000 bodies, 1.4 million funerary objects, and nearly 15,000 sacred artifacts associated with burial rites. However, the work has been slow and critics of the legislation have suggested that its provisions are not strong enough. Nearly two-thirds of cultural objects covered by the Act remain in the holding of museums and similar institutions. Similarly, NAGPRA enforcement has been lackluster with less than half of all non-compliance cases being formally investigated. Nonetheless, it is one of the strongest examples of repatriation legislation in the world. 

Search Keywords

  • NMAI Smithsonian
  • Respectful Return
  • Historic Cemeteries
  • Repatriation
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs
  • AAIA
  • Kennewick Man
  • American Antiquities Act

Databases & Directories

NAGPRA Tribal Contacts: This directory can be used for direct liaison with tribal representatives from Indigenous entities that have conducted work in conjunction with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Tribal Directory Assessment Tool (TDAT): Published by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, this database lists federally-recognized Indigenous entities based on current geographical location and that of historic origin.

Tribal Leaders Directory (TLD): Used in conjunction with TDAT, this database published by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs can be used to locate authorities and points of contact for Indigenous entities within the United States.

Tribal Connections: This visual database published by the U.S. Forest Service can be used to determine land cessions and territorial treaties established between the federal government and Indigenous entities. 

National NAGPRA Online Databases: This database maintained the National Parks Service lists all resolved and unresolved NAGPRA claims and is searchable via institution.

Human Remains Inventories: Any institution receiving money from the U.S. Federal government must submit and maintain a full inventory of any human remains in their holdings. Detailed information is available through this database.

Indian Claims Insight: This research database allows users to explore legal claims and decisions processed between the U.S. government and tribal entities recognized in the federal court system.

Interactive NAGPRA Consultation Map

This interactive map provided by the National Park Services allows users to consult the information found in the NAGPRA consultation database to determine tribal entities and contacts based on geographical location and historic land claims.

Selected Articles and Publications on Repatriation of Remains in the U.S.