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Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa. Photo: Jimmy Emerson.
Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa. Photo: Jimmy Emerson.

US Modifies Law Pertaining to Repatriation of Indigenous Remains, Sacred Objects

In an effort to strengthen enforcement of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the US Department of the Interior is altering the 1990 law, under which institutions receiving federal funding must inventory their troves of Indigenous human remains and burial objects so that these may be returned to tribes to which they belong. The statute has long been criticized for setting up roadblocks to repatriation, by not enforcing transparency on the part of institutions who ought to be made to provide to the public the information they possess regarding the remains and items, instead placing the burden of proof on the tribes seeking return of these.

To make the changes, which arrive as a number of institutions are beginning to reckon with their holdings of human remains, the Department of the Interior consulted with seventy-one tribal nations and received more than seven hundred recommendations regarding revisions to the law. To enforce the modified statute, the National Park Service (NPS) named David Barland-Liles to the newly created role of civil penalties investigator, the first full-time job associated with oversight and enforcement of NAGPRA since its enactment. A thirty-three-year veteran of the NPS, Barland-Liles was instrumental in bringing to justice a superintendent of Iowa’s Effigy Mounds National Monument, who just prior to the establishment of NAGPRA smuggled Indigenous remains to his home, where he kept them stored in garbage bags for two decades, fearing their presence at the burial mounds would result in the attendant funerary objects being repatriated.

“The repatriation of human remains and sacred cultural objects, and the protection of sacred sites is integral to preserving and commemorating Indigenous culture,” said Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland. “Changes to the NAGPRA regulations are on the way and long overdue.”

The proposed changes are expected to be made available for public review and comment shortly.