Native Voice: How NAGPRA and The National Museum of the American Indian empower Native American Culture

Native Voice:  How NAGPRA and The National Museum of the American Indian empower Native American Culture

Brieahn J. DeMeo
American University


The arts offer marginalized communities a source of empowerment and a non-verbal mode of discourse through which to express and explain the realities of their world.  In recent years Native Americans have been at the forefront of cultural rights legislations.  Through NAGPRA native groups have been given more control over their cultural resources then ever before.  The National Museum of the American Indian works with indigenous peoples in order to establish a center focused on native voice and expertise.  Through collaboration, repatriation and reflection native communities can become empowered to take control of their heritage, be recognized as experts of culture, and revitalize cultural customs.

The arts are deeply rooted within the cultural context from which they are derived.  The cultural elements of the arts are intrinsic to the understanding of art itself.  The emotive qualities of the arts create an environment through which unfamiliar realities may be understood.  The arts “speak” to audiences in a way that is unique and allows for the reception of ideas more effectively.  As a form of non-verbal discourse the arts have the potential to communicate disparities felt by marginalized communities and empower them to hold authority over their cultural resources.  Typically, we may think of the arts as paintings housed within national galleries, or performances within large opera houses, but the arts move beyond these more visible forms to the realm of cultural modes of expression.  We may not always think of a Native American artifact as art but its ability to visually communicate the traditions and heritage of a people allow it to enter into the art sphere.  Often times these items serve not only a functional purpose but also retain an aesthetic component that allows the viewer to regard it as “art” more easily.

The artifact’s inherent ability to communicate to the viewer information about its creator is the foundation for the argument that the arts can be utilized as a mode of discourse for “silent” populations.  Those communities that have a limited or non-existent voice are provided an alternative mode of communication and vehicle for empowerment.  For Native Americans their arts and cultural resources have strengthened their voices throughout the nation.  Cultural Policies privileging Native peoples have allowed for more control over heritage objects as well as the reinforcing the customs and traditions of communities.

More so than any other Museum within the U.S., The National Museum of the American Indian is influenced and affected by Native American governmental policies. Indigenous artifact collecting has a long history within academic institutions.  The Smithsonian has long been the home of many native cultural resources; a recent legislation has redefined the museums role in dealing with these resources.  In order to understand The Native American Graves and Repatriation Act and The National Museum for the American Indian Act we must first look at the legislation that laid the foundation for these contemporary laws.

The American Antiquities Act of 1906 was the first in the US to recognize the harmful nature of amateur archaeology.  The act authorized the President to declare public “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures and other objects of historic or scientific interest” (16 USC 431-433).  This also required permits for excavation sites with the stipulation that digs must be for the benefit of “reputable museums, universities, colleges or other recognized scientific or educational institutions (16 USC 431-433)”.  While there are many holes in this piece of legislation it was the beginning of a national focus on antiquities and archaeological practices.

The Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (ARPA) expanded the field of archaeology and preservation within a national context.  While the American Antiquities Act focused primarily on the sites of historical importance, ARPA addressed the cultural resources that were obtained through excavations both legally as well as illegally.  It established guidelines and definitions for removal of culturally significant items from federal and tribal lands (Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979).  ARPA strengthened control over archaeological resources found at these sites (Wright 2004, 133).  Included in the legislation were notification requirements that mandated archaeologists to inform native tribes 30 days prior to excavation if results of dig had potential to be harmful to the site (Wright 2004, 133).  With this new focus on archeological resources, the U.S. continued its legislative journey towards native cultural rights, and a new way of approaching museum practices.

The Native American Graves and Repatriation Act came out of a 1987 public reporting initiative held at the Smithsonian Institution that found 43% of human remains within its collection were of Native American origin (Rose, Green and Green 1996, 89).  This report led to Senate Bill 187 that prompted a discussion for Native American representatives, museums, and the scientific community.  Issues that were addressed involved the appropriate treatment and disposition of human remains and cultural objects (Rose, Green and Green 1996, 89).  What resulted from these discussions was The National Museum of the American Indian Act that eventually led to the creation of The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) as well as The Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

NAGPRA was established in 1990 and served to address the issue of Native American cultural resource ownership and the appropriate handling of native human remains.  NAGPRA requires universities, museums, and federal agencies to inventory their archaeological collections in order to prepare them for repatriation (Rose, Green and Green 1996, 81).  Concerns regarding the effects on research practices are common; the result of these concerns is a push to develop better research methods and increased standards for research (ibid. 92, 95).  The National Graves and Repatriation Act propelled archeological and museum professionals into a national inventory process which has eliminated gaps in research as well as created a more comprehensive analysis of artifacts and skeletal remains.  (Rose, Green and Green 1996, 81,99).

NAGPRA acknowledges the government to government relationship between the U.S. and American Indians (Wright 2004, 135).  It requires native groups to be notified and consulted regarding disposition of human remains and cultural items obtained on federal and tribal lands.  It lays down guidelines for repatriation of items as well as sets up a review board for tribal claims to items inventoried by museums (25 U.S.C NAGPRA 1990).             It allows for the examination of remains for the purposes of accurately identifying cultural affilitation and in so doing has led to the study of skeletons that had been kept, untouched, in collections for years (Wright 2004, 139, Rose, Green and Green 1996, 99).  NAGPRA does have its limits, its reach extends only to cultural items found on federal and tribal land and does not include those housed within private collections (Rose, Green and Green 1996, 89, Wright 2004, 136).

It does not prohibit archeological excavations or scientific research on federal land, but requires that Native American groups are notified prior to commencement.  However, if the archeological site is on tribal land a permit is required before excavation may begin (ibid. 89, 92).  Repatriation of items has not led to the demise of museums as some had feared, the NMAI maintians that less than 3% of their collection falls under primary categories of items eligible for repatriation (About The National Museum of the American Indian n.d.).  Scientific research of these collections continue to bring us insights into the past (Fine-Dare 2005, 182, Rose, Green and Green 1996).  As time goes on we have seen the formation of partnerships between native groups and academic institutions, namely those between The National Museum of the American Indian and native peoples.

The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is a different kind of museum.  The museum works in consultation, collaboration, and cooperation with native people as an important site for power and knowledge formation (Brady 2008, 764).  The goals of the museum are to protect and foster the cultures of the Northern Hemisphere by “reaffirming traditions and beliefs, encouraging contemporary artistic expression, and empowering the Indian voice (About The National Museum of the American Indian n.d.).”

The implementation of NAGPRA within the museum setting has opened the door for a very interesting and innovative way of looking at how we study and exhibit cultural resources.  In the past, museums have looked to anthropologists and scientists as sole experts of native culture.  The NMAI validates the legitimacy of both scientific and native discourses and allows them to be viewed on equal ground.  The participation of Native Americans in the design and content of research can eliminate the conflicts that arise between scientists and native peoples (Rose, Green and Green 1996, 88).  The National Museum of the American Indian has pioneered the field of indigenous institutions, maintaining a running native narrative throughout the exhibitions.

The museum does have its critiques; some argue that exhibits are, at times, unclear and densely packed with too many artifacts.  “The lengthy text panels leave little hope of important information to be taken away (Lemontree 2006, 58).”  In its attempt to incorporate the native voice, the museum may have overcompensated and in turn produced a space with too many voices.  One unified narrative would be virtually impossible to achieve, as the diversity among Native peoples is so extensive.

Yet another critique addresses the lack of information regarding the U.S. period of colonization, some feel as though the stories being told have less of an impact when told outside of their historical contexts.  Regardless, the museum has succeeded in representing indigenous perspectives and ways of knowing (Lemontree 2006, 58).  It recognizes that its “Native constituents have an absolute interest in the management, interpretation, and disposition of collections associated with their respective communities (About The National Museum of the American Indian n.d.).

The NMAI has created an environment in which the native voice becomes the central source for the legitimization of cultural resources housed within.  Native Americans are seen as experts of their culture rather than non-natives or anthropologists (Brady 2008, 768).  This is not to assume that non-natives lack the ability to specialize in this field of study, it does, however, empower those who have been marginalized in the past (Brady 2008, 764).

(full paper available upon request for academic and research purposes only)


4 thoughts on “Native Voice: How NAGPRA and The National Museum of the American Indian empower Native American Culture

  1. Hello,

    This article is great. I am doing research for a for a legal comparison of NAGPRA and the institutional mechanisms for repatriation in Canada and would love to read the rest of your article.


    1. Greg,

      I’m glad you found the excerpt interesting. I’ll send you a PDF of the article. It’ll be coming from my CreatingSpace email address. so be on the lookout.

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