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New federal rules for repatriation of Native ancestors, objects from museums expected in 2024

Inside a 17,000-square-foot storage facility at the Yale Peabody Museum in New Haven, Connecticut, which holds the museum's vast anthropology collection. Yale Peabody is one of four museums which have the remains of Native people from central and western Massachusetts.
Nancy Eve Cohen
/
NEPM
Inside a 17,000-square-foot storage facility at the Yale Peabody Museum in New Haven, Connecticut, which holds the museum's vast anthropology collection. Yale Peabody is one of four museums which have the remains of Native people from central and western Massachusetts.

The Department of Interior has announced new regulations for a federal law that governs the repatriation of Native objects and ancestral remains.

NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, was signed into law in 1990. But many Native objects and human remains are still in museums, colleges and other institutions, including the remains of 96,488 Native people across the country.

The remains of 39 Native people from Franklin, Hampden and Worcester Counties are still in four museums, according to a government data base.

The new rules set a specific deadline for the repatriation process — giving museums five years to consult with tribes and determine cultural affiliation for the Native remains in their collections.

Shannon O'Loughlin, CEO of the Association on American Indian Affairs, said the new regulations put the tribes in "the driver's seat."

"That's an important distinction between the current regulations and the ones that are about to be published," she said.

She said they clarify that the museum's decision making is reliant on tribal traditional knowledge.

"And that deference must be given to tribes and their knowledge, more so than other types of evidence, perhaps. Because tribes are the primary experts of their own cultural heritage," she said.

O'Loughlin said the new regulations underscore that the geographic location of where the ancestors were found is enough evidence to affiliate them with a modern day tribe.

Ryan Wheeler, director of the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology, said the new regulations clarify previous rules that were confusing. For instance, he said, if a museum is considering treaties as evidence to link human remains to a place, they don't have to be ratified treaties.

"Those still are evidence that particular tribes and nations were in an area," Wheeler explained. "They were there. They were negotiating over that territory. So even without it being a ratified treaty, it's still good evidence that these people have a connection to that place."

O'Loughlin described one aspect of the new regulations as "incredibly amazing" — the use of the terms "free, prior and informed consent."

"No longer will institutions be able to do research on ancestors, and other things without first consulting and obtaining the free, prior and informed consent of the Native nations that are affiliated with those ancestors and cultural items," O'Loughlin said.

The new rules restrict repatriation to federally-recognized tribes. O'Loughlin would like to see other tribes included.

The regulations are expected to go into effect early next year.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.
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