In 1990, the United States Congress passed a law which has become one of the most looked-over and commented-on issues in the last 20 years having to do with Native Americans.
If you were to ask a group of people on the street if they know what NAGPRA, NHPA or ARPA stood for, you would find that most would not. But if you ask if they were following the issues related to the 9,000-year-old remains found on Corps of Engineers land in Kennewick, all would have a comment in some form. This issue is directly related to NAGPRA (the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act).
If you picked up your newspaper and read about a demonstration to save a 200-year-old building soon to be taken down due to decay, you might not give it much thought. But if that same building was the birthplace of our 16th president, you might reconsider what options are available to stop this destruction. You could evoke NHPA (the National Historic Preservation Act).
ARPA (the Archeological Protection Act) is designed to protect archeological sites from being looted and, in our time, sold on eBay. Most, but not all, archeological sites are Native American, but in the past ARPA was all that stood in the way of a looter and the history that was being destroyed. There are very few laws out there to stop any one from digging up human remains and even displaying them for public view.
This is where NAGPRA plays a leading role. Within the body of this law, human Indian remains are no longer removed from sites without the notification of the Tribe that is indigenous to the area. It also gives the Tribe the right to request that the removal not be performed. It is the law to request that the road or the project be relocated or moved slightly to make sure it does not disturb the remains.
NAGPRA is a federal law which is strongest on federal property, but the largest depositories of human remains are institutions and museums. This is where the revisions in the law have been centralized. When you request a return from an institution or museum, it is required to return the grave goods associated with the remains. The grave goods associated with remains are the beautiful pieces of art and crafted items that the museum has on display — and this is what it is reluctant to part with. NAGPRA states that it must follow the law if the remains can be identified with a group or individual.
So here is the loop: if the remains can be determined as unidentified, the institution or museum is not obligated to return the remains — and thus they remain in storage and on display.
To help with this problem, the tribes have been forming coalitions, councils to claim remains from earlier time periods. Missouri is one of the states that have been reluctant to return remains, so a coalition between the Kaw Nation, Osage Nation, Ponca Nation and Omaha Nation was formed. This group has been able to give substantial proof that during the 1300s and 1400s all these tribes were one, so we have put in a claim for about 600 human remains in Missouri.
Due to the progress that this group has made, the state and federal Highway Departments of Missouri have entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Kaw Nation. This guarantees that the Kaw Nation will be notified within five days of any find by either the state or federal departments. The bottom line states we have a say in what is to be done with the remains.
It is my hope that the State of Illinois will look on this as a stepping stone towards the same consideration. I will not go so far to believe that this will make such a large problem go away, but every time we get them to acknowledge that the Tribes have a say, it is just that much closer to getting the bodies back to where they belong to rest. If we can do this by making sure they do not store more, this is a good thing.
Please feel free to call the office toll-free at 1-866-404-5297 and ask for Crystal Douglas at extension 235. I will be happy to answer any questions you have on the laws or a project you think we need to look into.