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Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)

The Purpose of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)

The purpose of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) is to “develop a systematic process for determining the rights of lineal descendants and Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations to certain Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony with which they are affiliated.” 

— from the Introduction of NAGPRA (Public Law 101-601)

What is NAGPRA?

NAGPRA is a United States federal law that was passed in 1990. The act directs federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding (including museums, universities, and state or local governments) in possession of Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred items, and objects of cultural patrimony to notify and consult with affiliated lineal descendants or Tribal Nations. Through consultation, Indigenous communities can repatriate their ancestors’ remains and sacred items. In addition, NAGPRA provides a Tribal consultation process for the discovery of Native American human remains and funerary items that are excavated from or inadvertently found on Federal and Tribal lands.

Enforcement of NAGPRA

A criminal violation of NAGPRA occurs when 

  • A person knowingly sells, purchases, uses for profit, or transports for sale or profit Native American human remains or a Native American cultural item obtained in violation of NAGPRA


A museum may incur a civil penalty by

  • Selling or transferring Native American or Native Hawaiian cultural items contrary to NAGPRA
  • Not completing a summary or inventory of Native American or Native Hawaiian items or human remains in their possession
  • Not notifying the affiliated Tribes or Native Hawaiian organization of Indigenous human remains or items in their collection or holdings
  • Refusing to repatriate items to lineal descendants or a culturally affiliated Indigenous community
  • Failing to consult with lineal descendants, Tribes, or Native Hawaiians
  • Not notifying recipients of repatriated items of potential hazards such as pesticides, preservatives, or other treatments that may be harmful to the item or humans


Most states, including Arizona and New Mexico, have laws protecting unmarked burials, human remains, and/or funerary objects on state, county, and/or private lands.

NAGPRA and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act

Human remains and funerary objects from federal and Indian lands are protected under the Archaeological Resource Protection Act (ARPA) and are often involved in looting cases. A NAGPRA violation would occur once the Native American remains and/or funerary objects are sold, purchased, used for profit, or transported for sale or profit.  Archaeologists and Tribal historic preservation experts often assist in the collection and presentation of evidence related to ARPA and NAGPRA violations. Tribes must be notified when human remains or objects protected by NAGPRA are encountered in an ARPA investigation.

Why NAGPRA Is Important

Before NAGPRA became law, many Tribes wanted museums and government agencies to return their ancestors’ human remains, funerary items, and sacred objects. NAGPRA addressed this issue by requiring federal agencies or federally-funded institutions to notify and consult with lineal descendants or affiliated Tribe/s, Native Hawaiian organizations, or Alaska Native villages, whose ancestral human remains, funerary objects, or sacred items they possess. 

NAGPRA recognizes Native Americans as the rightful caretakers of their ancestors and cultural items and is considered by many to be a win for Tribal sovereignty.  It protects the cultural belongings and biological remains of Native Americans. 

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