Honoring Native Voices, Cultures, Histories, and Ancestors on International Museum Day

May 20, 2024 | Blog, Featured Post, Inside the College Fund

Did you know there are federal laws regarding what museums can keep in their collections when it comes to Native peoples?

The Native American Graves Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed in 1990 and regulates Federal agencies and institutions that receive Federal funds (including museums, universities, state agencies, and local governments). NAGPRA requires repatriation or transfer of ancestors’ remains and other cultural items removed from burial sites.

No other group of people in the United States has had their ancestors, spiritual objects, photographs of elders, and sacred medicines displayed in exhibits or held in collections for study without the possibility of return. The American Indian College Fund (College Fund) believes Native cultural items and ancestors must be returned to their families and communities by these institutions as a human right. As part of this process, we encourage these institutions to collaborate with tribal nations and citizens to tell our stories and portray our histories accurately and respectfully. And by supporting TCUs that offer museum studies programs and students interested in the field, the American Indian College Fund is ensuring our graduates are key to telling those stories.

NAGPRA governs discoveries on federal land. Discoveries or excavations on state or private land are governed first by local or state laws, but human remains, or cultural items removed from private or state land, may be subject to repatriation under NAGPRA, depending on who has control of them.

Once NAGPRA comes into play, museums must follow these procedures when repatriating cultural objects and ancestral remains to tribal families or communities are governed by:

    • consulting with lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations on Native American human remains and other cultural items.
    • protecting and planning for Native American human remains and other cultural items that may be removed from Federal or tribal lands.
    • identifying and reporting all Native American human remains and other cultural items in inventories and summaries of institutions’ holdings or collections; and
    • giving notice prior to repatriating or transferring human remains and other cultural items.

The American Indian College Fund believes elevating the visibility of contemporary Native artists and their voices is integral to telling our stories. It is just as important for Native people to be represented respectfully and accurately through the arts in museums and other institutions.

We encourage art museums to display the contemporary work of living Native artists to reflect the richness and diversity of our creative genius and our perspectives and visions as contemporary artists and artisans. Through our work we also support students who are studying in museum studies and museum management programs and the arts through scholarships. We also sponsor Native arts programs at tribal colleges and universities.

Photo credit: The tipi, a gift from Travois, a Kansas City, Missouri-based consulting firm, was used to publicize “The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky” exhibition at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. The tipi was donated to further awareness of its work, the TCUs, and Native cultures. Photo by Ryan RedCorn.

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