The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and International Repatriation
Native American peoples within the boundaries of the United States, as well as Indigenous Peoples around the world, are facing human rights violations that are twofold and a holdover from the colonial era when Indigenous Peoples were subjugated and their equal rights were not legally recognized. Initial human rights violations occurred when ancestral remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony were robbed from our graves or taken from our communities without the free, prior and informed consent of our peoples and communities. These human rights violations remain today with the continued possession, display, study, or profit from our ancestral remains and cultural items without the free, prior and informed consent of our peoples and communities. The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) recognizes that: “indigenous peoples are equal to all other peoples,” “indigenous peoples, in the exercise of their rights, should be free from discrimination of any kind,” U.N. documents have affirmed “the fundamental importance of the right to self-determination of all peoples,” and “the United Nations has an important and continuing role to play in promoting and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples….”
The UNDRIP has been signed by all nation-states and has established a customary norm pertaining to Indigenous rights. Article 12 of the UNDRIP specifically states, “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.” Therefore, all nation-states presently acknowledge the right to Indigenous international repatriation.
Today, Native Americans face the enormous task of locating our ancestral remains and cultural items, which are presently dispersed throughout the world in repositories and private collections. There are an estimated 1-2 million Native American ancestral remains and cultural items that have been taken from our Native American peoples and now reside in repositories.
We request that the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples:
- Make “International Repatriation” a theme or sub-theme of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues within the next two years;
- Convene an “International Expert Group Meeting on International Repatriation” to bring all Indigenous Peoples together over several days to: 1) Discuss international repatriation; 2) Establish a U.N. Indigenous International Repatriation Committee with the purpose of: a) assisting Indigenous Peoples with the monumental task of international repatriation; b) facilitating an Indigenous International Repatriation network; c) convening a bi-annual meeting for Indigenous Peoples on international repatriation; d) creating a model policy for the return of Indigenous ancestral remains and cultural items from international repositories, which takes into consideration cultural sensitivity and confidentiality concerns and which shall be revisited every five years and amended at that time, if necessary; and e) appointing Indigenous Committee officers; 3) Agree upon and create a Joint Declaration on International Repatriation; 4) Establish a statement to be submitted to the U.N. requesting that every nation-state create an inventory of Indigenous ancestral remains and cultural items, and where removal occurred, if known, with access to the inventory provided to Indigenous Peoples around the world; and 5) Establish the date of the first U.N. Indigenous International Repatriation Committee meeting.
- Employ the necessary U.N. mechanisms within the capacity of the position of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to meet the needs of these requests for indigenous communities.
In addition to the support of the international community, Native American communities in the United States need the support of the federal government in international repatriation efforts. The United States has a long history of supporting the repatriation of Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony, most particularly through laws such as the National Museum of the American Indian Act (NMAI Act) and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). At the 11th Meeting of Negotiations in the Quest for Points of Consensus on the Draft Inter-American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Statement of Principles of the United States of America on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples stated the following, “Indigenous peoples should be able to maintain, protect, and have access to their religious and cultural sites and should have the collective right to repatriation of their human remains, ceremonial objects, and cultural patrimony.” In addition, the United States signed the UNDRIP, which supports international repatriation for indigenous communities in Article 12.
While these statements are certainly important, it is equally important to create mechanisms that assist Native American communities with the process of international repatriation, particularly due to the limited resources in staff and funding that many Native American communities face with human rights issues of this magnitude. Therefore, the Working Group on International Repatriation requests that the United States:
- Formally state their binding support of Native American communities seeking to repatriate internationally and endeavor to provide assistance to these communities, many of which have formal government-to-government relationships with the United States;
- Dedicate staff at the U.S. State Department to assist Native American communities with international repatriations;
- Create specific funds for Native American communities seeking to research international collections and establish International Repatriation Programs among their communities;
- Provide an endowed fund to support international repatriation consultation and repatriation grants for Native American communities with an oversight Committee of Native American officials tasked with distribution of these grants;
- Amend NAGPRA Section 5(a) to read: “Each Federal agency and each museum which has or had possession or control over holdings or collections of Native American human remains and associated funerary objects shall compile an inventory of such items….” to assist Native American communities, so that they may: 1) identify “unindentified” ancestral remains and funerary objects in international repositories that have been exchanged or traded with U.S. museums, and 2) collect evidence for claims for international repatriations;
- Amend NAGPRA Section 6(a) to read: “Each Federal agency or museum which has or had possession or control over holdings or collections of Native American unassociated funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony shall provide a written summary of such objects…” to assist Native American communities, so that they may: 1) identify “unindentified” funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony in international repositories that have been exchanged or traded with U.S. museums, and 2) collect evidence for claims for international repatriations;
- Amend the NMAI Act to require the museums of the Smithsonian Institution to provide inventories to Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations of Native American human remains and cultural items that have been exchanged or are now missing from the collections;
- Enter into bilateral agreements regarding the repatriation of indigenous human remains and cultural items; and
- Remain cognizant of cultural sensitivity concerns and take measures to maintain confidentiality in these matters.
The Working Group on International Repatriation believes these recommendations will assist Native American communities, as well as Indigenous communities, begin the monumental process of bringing our ancestors and cultural items home and address these egregious human rights violations.
–Working Group on International Repatriation and AAIA