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Repatriation at the Museum

The Museum of Us supports the repatriation of cultural resources to all descendent communities. Ultimately, we are interested in stewarding cultural resources only with the full consent of descendent communities. Therefore, the Museum strongly supports repatriations to descendent communities both within the United States and internationally, inclusive of Native American Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities. We take an action-oriented approach that centers the perspectives and worldviews of the descendent community. We acknowledge that the repatriation of ancestral human remains and cultural resources is an integral part of confronting past injustices and enabling the practice and revitalization of cultural traditions.

We prioritize compliance with federal and state repatriation legislation, specifically the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and the California Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (CalNAGPRA). We recognize and value the Indigenous-led activism and labor that led to the passage of these civil rights legislations. We also acknowledge and respect the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) which informs our international repatriation practices through our Colonial Pathways Policy.

We work very closely with descendent communities throughout the repatriation process, typically through representatives authorized to speak on behalf of their community. When addressing the repatriation of ancestral remains and cultural resources from the United States, we consult with lineal descendants, representatives for federally recognized tribes, state recognized tribes, and non-federally and non-state recognized tribes. For cultural resources originating from outside the United States, we consult with lineal descendants and descendent community leaders including traditional government representatives, cultural councils, scholars, spiritual leaders, artists, and advocates. We also consult with national governments, international Indigenous organizations, non-governmental organizations led by the descendent community, and diaspora communities within and outside the United States.

We are committed to transparency in our repatriation work by providing access to all the available cultural resources necessary for research, including but not limited to archives, accession files, maps, sound recordings, and photographs. We also openly communicate about our capacity and estimated timelines while striving to remain accessible to government and community representatives. We will also collaborate with descendent communities domestically and internationally including Tribal Nations and community-led cultural organizations in the process of securing grants to fund repatriation efforts. Staff will also provide support during consultations with United States federal and state agencies.

About NAGPRA

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, is a federal law passed in 1990. It provides a process for how museums, universities, federal agencies, and federally recognized tribes, Native Hawaiian Organizations, Alaska Native Corporations, and lineal descendants (hereafter referred to as “tribes”) can work on returning legal control and physical possession of ancestral human remains and specific cultural belongings to their families and communities of origin. These belongings include sacred and ceremonial items, funerary items, and items of cultural patrimony (having ongoing traditional or cultural significance). The process requires that museums consult with tribes and lineal descendants to determine the cultural affiliation of ancestral remains and cultural items so they can be returned to the appropriate home community. NAGPRA also establishes a timeframe and reporting requirements for the repatriation process. Reporting takes the form of official notices published in the Federal Register that inform tribes and the public about specific repatriations. Any museum that has received federal funds in any amount or for any reason must comply with NAGPRA.

The National Parks Service administers compliance with NAGPRA. Learn more on the National Park Service website.

NAGPRA and the Museum

The Museum of Us is a strong supporter of the letter and spirit of NAGPRA and is committed to upholding the law and complying with all NAGPRA regulations. The Museum practices collections stewardship addressing the spirit of the law by incorporating tribal protocols in our collections care practices in consultation with tribes, from how belongings are handled or housed together, to restrictions on research access to non-tribal members, and more. Part of our practice is to also streamline compliance activities by minimizing internal bureaucracies within the disposition process of repatriation.

The Museum of Us consults with authorized representatives of federally recognized tribes, non-federally recognized tribes, state recognized tribes, and tribal coalitions. If you are an authorized tribal representative and would like to engage in NAGPRA consultations with the Museum of Us, or would like to learn more about our process, please email us at culturalresources@museumofus.org.

To view the federal notices published by the Museum of Us, please follow the link below. Note that prior to 2022, notices were published under our old name, the San Diego Museum of Man. 

Museum of Us Federal Register NAGPRA Notices

Preparing for NAGPRA Consultations

Read and download this infographic about NAGPRA consultations at the Museum of Us.

Museum of Us staff are available to assist throughout the consultation and repatriation process and every step is undertaken in collaboration with tribal representatives. We work to maintain regular and clear communications with tribal representatives, be flexible to changing needs and conditions, and to offer solutions to challenges to move the repatriation process forward in a productive way.

The first step after staff and tribal representatives have had initial conversations is to compile a list from the Museum database and applicable documentation of all cultural resources that could be of interest to the tribes for review. We work with tribes to gather a list of key terms to aid in our review, such as different names for the tribe, geographic locations, associated individuals and groups, or types of belongings. We provide a draft list of search results that may include cultural resources from throughout the Museum, including those currently on exhibit, archaeology, archives, and contemporary pieces. To ensure that the decisions about what is relevant to tribes are within their control, we do not edit or remove cultural resources from the list without prior discussion with the tribe(s). After reviewing the list, we work with tribes to conduct additional research if needed.

Next, staff will work with tribes to plan a consultation visit to the Museum to hold space with Ancestors and to view any belongings tribes are considering for repatriation.We also have the ability to accommodate virtual consultations, if desired. Anyone the tribes wish to bring to the visit is welcome. During the planning process the Museum is open to discussions regarding care and stewardship of cultural resources and Ancestors. This includes following cultural protocols for offerings (feedings) handling by community members of specific status and/or appropriately gendered individuals, and other actions deemed appropriate by the tribe. The Museum also acknowledges the historic use of pesticides within cultural resources spaces and on the items themselves. When known, this will be specifically disclosed, but it is understood that any item in the Museum’s holdings may have been treated with pesticides at any point prior to 2000.

During the consultation, all information shared is considered confidential. Staff will ask for permission to take notes which will be shared with the tribe to verify accuracy. During the consultation, staff will have placed all the belongings you have requested into a room for viewing. The Ancestors may be moved only with tribal permission and guidance. Copies of all documentation associated with the belongings you are viewing will also be made available during and after the consultation.The Museum will also provide hospitality services through meals, snacks, and rest breaks. There is also time dedicated during consultation for tribes and individuals to observe self-care, community-care, or other forms of cultural or personal observance (e.g. smudging, washing, prayer, etc.)

The Museum recognizes that some cultural resources and Ancestors might have multiple cultural affiliations and we are obligated to consult with lineal descendants, tribal official and traditional religious leaders that are likely to be culturally affiliated or from whose tribal or aboriginal lands the Ancestors, associated and unassociated funerary items, sacred objects, and items of cultural patrimony originated. [43 CFR 10.8(d), 43 CFR 10.9(b)]

Staff will practice transparency with all interested tribes about the current and historic NAGPRA compliance efforts and seek to communicate openly regarding the status of repatriation efforts with these tribes. The Museumwholly supports nation-to-nation communications around issues of cultural affiliation and can take part in these communications as much or as little as the tribes prefer. It is the Museum’s goal for important decisions around cultural affiliation of Ancestors and cultural resources to be made by the descendant communities and not solely by staff.

Cultural affiliation means that there is a relationship of shared group identity that can be reasonably traced historically or prehistorically between members of a present-day Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization and an identifiable earlier group. Cultural affiliation is established when the preponderance of the evidence—based on geographical, kinship, biological, archaeological, anthropological, linguistic, folklore, oral tradition, historical evidence, or other information or expert opinion—reasonably leads to such a conclusion. [43 CFR 10.2(e)(1)]

After consultation is completed with all interested tribes, Museum staff will finalize a draft inventory. When an inventory is completed or when you are ready to submit a claim for repatriation, we will draft a Notice of Inventory Completion or a Notice of Intent to Repatriate to be posted on the Federal Register. The Notice will be shared with all culturally affiliated tribes who consulted for review prior to it being published in the Federal Register. After publication, if there are nocounter claims, made within the expiry period, the belongings will be legally repatriated and staff will work with you to plan and carryout the physical disposition of the Ancestors and cultural resources.

Partnering on Grants

The Museum of Us welcomes partnerships with tribes, Indigenous communities, and lineal descendants on grant applications and project planning. This may include supporting tribes or tribal coalitions with their own grant applications, applying on behalf of a tribe, or applying as partners for a collaborative project, and more. The museum will pursue NAGPRA grant funding and any relevant federal, state, local, or private funding in support of our repatriation goals and to lessen the financial burden on tribal communities. 

The Museum of Us, in partnership with federally recognized tribes, has been awarded NAGPRA grants to support consultation and documentation. Museum staff have experience successfully planning and completing grant-funded NAGPRA projects and submitting required reports to granting agencies.

National NAGPRA offers two grants supporting NAGPRA projects, which include Consultation and Documentation Grants and Repatriation Grants. 

If you are interested in partnering on a grant, please contact us well in advance of the application deadlines to discuss potential projects and prepare grant applications. Please allow at least three months for grant writing and project development.

If you are interested in partnering on a grant, please contact us well in advance of the application deadlines to discuss potential projects and prepare grant applications. Please allow at least three months for grant writing and project development.

Researcher Access and Confidentiality

The primary priorities for staff in the Cultural Resources Department are repatriation and addressing requests from lineal descendants and communities directly affiliated with the cultural resources in our care. This consists of NAGPRA compliance, coordinating tribal consultations, grant writing, inventories, and research. Journalists and researchers seeking to discuss NAGPRA or repatriation topics with museum staff are advised to allow ample time in their project plans in consideration of Museum staff priorities and limits on capacity. 

Confidentiality of sensitive tribal or family information is strongly enforced and includes maintaining confidentiality regarding the progress or details of active repatriation cases. Expressed permission from authorized tribal representatives isrequired for staff to discuss anything considered confidential.

Learn more about access to cultural resources.

Policies & Resources

Read our Policy on the Curation of Human Remains FAQ.

Read our Collections Management Policy, which includes our policy on the curation of human remains in full beginning on page 7.