On 17 November 1990, “The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act” (PL 101-601) was signed into law. This act mandates the return of specific kinds of objects to Native Americans, makes illegal their trafficking across state lines, and is specific about the process and procedures for archaeological excavations. The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum) is primarily affected by the first of these three requirements, involving museum collections. Five categories of objects are identified in the law: human remains, associated funerary objects, unassociated funerary objects, objects of cultural patrimony, and sacred objects.
Since the passage of NAGPRA, and in compliance with the law, the Penn Museum has mailed over 1000 letters to federally recognized tribes informing them of our holdings and extending invitations to consult with us about our holdings. As of 2014, 45 formal repatriation claims seeking the return of collections have been received and 25 repatriations have been completed resulting in the transfer of 232 sets of human remains, 750 funerary objects, 14 unassociated funerary objects, 20 objects of cultural patrimony, 22 sacred objects and 2 object claimed as both cultural patrimony and sacred.
In the spirit of the law, Penn Museum’s repatriation staff has worked vigorously to accurately inventory and research our collections, and to inform, consult and cooperate successfully with tribes about the items in our care. Observing and listening to native representatives talk about the objects has in several cases been especially rewarding and informative - in a very real sense, it has brought life to the collections.
NAGPRA has simultaneously forced us to face a variety of difficult challenges, some solutions to which are still evolving as the repatriation process unfolds. Finding common ground between native interpretations of the law and those of the Museum has been a particular test, and it is in this area that ongoing discussions with tribes are most often focused.
For more information about NAGPRA please see the National Park Service (U.S. Department of the Interior) National NAGPRA website.
Inquiries about repatriation concerns and procedures should be submitted in writing to:
The Williams Director
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
3260 South Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6324