NAGPRA and the Penn Museum: Reconciling Science and the Sacred*

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The passing of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was a turning point in museum practices, and in the empowerment of Native peoples. Its goal was to reunite artifacts classified as “cultural items” with their respective tribes. While demonstrating respect toward indigenous cultures, the act has resulted in a loss of valuable scientific information as cultural objects and human remains are removed from study. Museums receiving federal funding were required to return artifacts in their collections to tribes, sometimes leading to debate over whether or not said items fell into the categories set forth by the act. One such controversy arose between the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum) and the Tlingit people of southeast Alaska. Penn Museum was willing to return eight of thirty-nine contested artifacts in their collections to the Tlingit, citing that the terms of NAGPRA did not apply to the remaining items in question. Dissatisfied, the Hoonah Indian Association and the Huna Totem Corporation brought the conflict in front of a NAGPRA Review Committee in 2010, which ruled unanimously that the Penn Museum must return all thirty-nine artifacts to the Tlingit people.

The conflict over these artifacts was rare, and efforts to repatriate items in museum collections are usually carried out without incident. Recent years have seen concerted efforts to ensure the survival of indigenous tribes and their heritage, as well as increased communication between museums and Native peoples. The sharing of cultural practices allows museums to place artifacts in proper context through their exhibitions, and expresses to Native communities that their traditions are being respected. Technological advances, such as digital archives and 3D imaging, have been utilized to reach a compromise between scientists and indigenous cultures. The passing of NAGPRA in itself underscores the continuation of the conflicts between science and the sacred, as well as the complicated question as to who can lay claim to a culture’s heritage.

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