It’s never too late to right a wrong, says Peter Pino, of the Zia Pueblo, and that has been the intent of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, passed in 1990.
For centuries, Native American burial sites have been desecrated by looters for profit, or violated by archeologists for research, then added to museum collections.
NAGPRA is a federal law that aims to reverse those wrongs by working with museums to return human remains, funerary objects, sacred items, and religious artifacts to tribes.
During a recent talk at Mesa Verde National Park, Pino said park officials have worked well with tribes to repatriate burial remains.
Also, artifacts deemed offensive have been removed from the park’s museum exhibits, and consultation with tribes on cultural information presented to the public is ongoing.
“We learn from each other, and it’s important that the relationship continues into the next generation of staff,” Pino said.
‘Prayers and apologies’
Pino’s Zia Pueblo in New Mexico is one of 26 tribes affiliated with the history of Mesa Verde National Park.
Descendants of the ancient cliff-dweller society preserved at the park migrated south 800 years ago, and now reside in the 19 Pueblos along the Rio Grande River.
“The Pueblos worked together, and between 1996 and 2006 all uncovered remains at Mesa Verde were reburied,” Pino said during a presentation at Far View Lodge. “It was a big accomplishment and a big relief.”
The reburial locations are kept secret to avoid vandalism, and are often conducted by national park staff because handling human remains is considered taboo for tribes, Pino said.
“Afterwards tribal leaders visit the site and offer prayers and apologies for the disturbance,” he said.
Under NAGPRA, museums are required to conduct inventories of human remains and burial objects, and then consult with tribes for their return.
The Anasazi Heritage Center has completed its inventory of burial remains and funerary objects, reported curator Bridget Ambler.
“NAGPRA is an important law, and we at the BLM value our government-to-government relationships with tribes,” she said.
Colorado and its two Ute tribes have taken the lead in successfully implementing NAGPRA polices, and are a model for other states, said Ernest House Jr., executive director for the Colorado Department of Indian Affairs.
“We’re at the forefront of the NAGPRA effort for not only the Ute tribes but all tribes who once called Colorado home,” said House, who is a Ute Mountain Ute tribal member.
In 2008, Colorado Ute tribes solved the tricky problem of what to do with human remains in museums whose tribe is unknown. The Utes agreed to take responsibility for their reburial.
Sheila Goff, a curator and NAGPRA liaison for History Colorado, said the collaboration with the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain tribes to rebury culturally unidentifiable remains was an important milestone. The agreement includes authorization from the 46 tribes who once called Colorado home.
“So far 105 individuals and 104 funerary objects have been legally handed over to the Ute tribes,” Goff said.
Spirit of NAGPRA
Ernest said the reburial of culturally unidentified remains corrects a wrong long suffered by the Native American community.
“It means a lot from our perspective,” he said. “Our ancestors deserve to be taken off the shelves and reburied so they can continue their spiritual journey, no matter which tribe they are from.” In 2013, Colorado and the Utes reached additional agreements to expand locations for reburials onto federal public lands in the state.
But it took many years to earn tribal trust that NAGPRA would work as intended.
Tribes were waiting to see if museums could “take the heat for what they were trying to implement,” said House in a 2013 law review article on NAGPRA from the University of Colorado.
Return of burial remains is important for tribes, but it’s also a very sensitive situation. For example, the CU law review points out that turnover rates for tribal NAGPRA officials has been high due to the negative social impacts of dealing with burials.
The law article praises Colorado curators for implementing the spirit of NAGPRA by not taking advantage of cultural-designation loopholes in the law.
In one example David Bailey, curator for the Museum of Western Colorado repatriated “an elegant beaded vest and a buckskin dress decorated with elk teeth to Northern Ute families.”
The action led to improved relations with the tribe and sharing of cultural information and artifacts with the museum.
In his presentation, Pino said NAGPRA has overall been good for repatriation of burials, sacred objects, and ceremonial items. But it can cause pitfalls when there is “fussing over who owns this turkey blanket or that belt, or a certain pot. There is negative potential to divide us.”
He said often there is no way to know which tribe or pueblo an item belongs to, and therefore it should remain in the museum collection, or where it is found.
“It’s OK as being in an exhibit, people can learn from it, and it can be visited by tribal members,” Pino said.