Written by Tori Smith, Public Relations and Social Media Assistant

When visitors come into the museum, they might find themselves venturing off into the Africa, Americas, and Pacific Islands galleries only to be met by something unexpected: covered displays.   

The displays are covered up for reasons related to NAGPRA: the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. This federal law has been in place since 1990 and provides for the protection and possible return of Native American:  

  1. Human remains (DOMA does not collect human remains)  
  1. Funerary objects  
  1. Sacred objects  
  1. Objects of cultural patrimony  

NAGPRA requires federal agencies and institutions who receive federal funds to consult with Native American Nations to repatriate certain belongings and remains to their descendants, as well as improve the care and storytelling of the belongings left in museums.   

Recent updates to NAGPRA’s regulations went into effect on January 12, 2024. The regulations update definitions and procedures for museums and Federal agencies regarding their compliance with NAGPRA regulations, including new requirements on museums obtaining consent from culturally-affiliated Native American Nations prior to any public display of certain cultural objects. DOMA has covered its display cases while it consults with Native American Nations regarding these objects. It is actively engaged in such consultation with potentially affiliated Tribes and Native Hawaiian Organizations to determine next steps.  

What is repatriation?

According to the Field Museum, repatriation is the process by which important cultural items and human remains are returned to lineal descendants or descendant communities.  

To begin repatriation, each agency/museum must complete an inventory of the list above. Then, the agency/museum must consult with lineal descendants, Indian Tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations, they must evaluate requests for repatriation or claims for disposition, and they must give public notice prior to any repatriation.  

If a reader is interested in learning more about the process or the law itself, a reference library can be found here.