International Repatriation: An Educational Process

         International repatriation from foreign repositories is a present-day possibility for American Indian tribes, Native Hawaiian organizations, and Alaska Native Corporations in the United States. A significant number of human remains have been repatriated to indigenous peoples from these institutions. Arguably, the return of human remains has become an international norm in international law and policy.

Funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony are also increasingly becoming accepted through the educational process of communication among tribes and international museums. This is especially effective in instances where museums themselves make repatriation decisions instead of the decision falling under state committees or cultural heritage protection laws where tribes are unable to speak directly to decision-makers.

Unfortunately, it is at the domestic policy level (the country’s policy) where legislation sometimes prevents repatriation. For instance, a country may have created legislation that actively prevents repatriation on human remains older than one-hundred years or it may group Native American human remains and cultural objects under the category of cultural heritage, which is sometimes protected under a country’s constitution. (The constitutional amendment process is one of the most difficult to overcome in any country.)

How can these seemingly unobtainable obstacles be overcome? There is always a way; we just have to find it.

The United States is currently reviewing the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples [Declaration] to determine whether our country will sign and ratify it. International repatriation should fall under Articles 11 and 12, which read as follows:

Article 11
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to practise and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs. This includes the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artefacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature.
2. States shall provide redress through effective mechanisms, which may include restitution, developed in conjunction with indigenous peoples, with respect to their cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property taken without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs.
Article 12
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to manifest, practise, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies; the right to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites; the right to the use and control of their ceremonial objects; and the right to the repatriation of their human remains.
2. States shall seek to enable the access and/or repatriation of ceremonial objects and human remains in their possession through fair, transparent and effective mechanisms developed in conjunction with indigenous peoples concerned.


The Declaration has been endorsed by  all countries except the United States and Canada who are both now reviewing it. (New Zealand just endorsed it in April.) With the current U.S. review underway, it is important for tribes to voice their concerns or support now and to advocate for international repatriation. This may be done by contacting U.S. House Representatives, U.S. Senators and the White House , but most importantly to leave comments with the State Department who is in charge of collecting comments at Recent releases by President Barack Obama and the White House on this review process have included, “Forging a New and Better Future,” and the remarks given by President Obama just prior to signing the Tribal Law and Order Act that have stated that the review committee is now consulting with tribes on the Declaration.

While the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is important for the support of international repatriation on the international law and policy level, it is also important to continue discussions on the domestic front and with individual foreign repositories. This ongoing educational process of communication is vitally important for both museums and tribes, not only from the standpoint of repatriation efforts, but to ensure that accurate information is portrayed about American Indian history and current events when the museum seeks to exhibit legitimate collection pieces. Such knowledge will have a domino effect, which may ultimately help sway decisions by lawmakers on the international, national and local levels toward understanding and awareness of indigenous issues.

Unfortunately, the reality remains that many foreign repositories have never had direct communication with the Native American cultures they represent to the public through their collections. Most often, exhibits group Native American cultures together in the old anthropological groupings of Eastern Woodlands, Arctic, Southeastern, Plains, Northwestern and Southwestern tribes without any real understanding of the diversity of language, culture and history of the 564 federally recognized tribes in the United States. Publications have oftentimes been the only sources for international museums and, as many of us know, while there has been a significant amount of poking and prodding done throughout the centuries in our various communities, findings have been misinterpreted, misunderstood or flat-out wrong. As I mentioned in an earlier post, tribes and their families are the experts of their own cultures, history and what should ultimately and rightly happen to tribal human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony.

In addition, many foreign repositories simply are not aware of what is in their collections and where they originated. This has occurred mainly as a result of bequests or donations by individuals without provenances (histories). These individuals may have inherited Native American human remains or cultural objects from generations ago, collected them as exotic curiosities, or traveled to the United States at some point during their lifetimes. Museum professionals find themselves frustrated because they are unable to identify collection origins and, some find that their institutions are too small to fund these studies. In other words, many international museums are willing to open up communication lines to understand exactly what is in their collections.

Finally, some foreign repositories are unsure of who to contact for a repatriation. While this may seem difficult to understand to us because many tribal repatriation officers exist in the United States as a result of NAGPRA, it is not so obvious to these foreign repositories. NAGPRA (usually) does not apply in their countries, so there is no reason to know its details. The process of repatriation is unknown and the concept of tribal governments and the political status of tribes in the United States is (many times) completely off their radars.

As international repatriations continue from foreign repositories to U.S. tribes, these unknowns for international museums will decrease. But, for now, there will be some challenges for tribes to face until the educational process takes hold, repatriation policies are developed in international museums and, hopefully, ongoing relationships are built between these institutions and tribes in the United States. 


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