Interior Department Announces Final Rule for Implementation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act

Last edited 12/06/2023

Date: Wednesday, December 6, 2023

WASHINGTON — The Department of the Interior today announced a final rule to revise regulations that implement the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). These regulations provide systematic processes for returning Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony to lineal descendants, Indian Tribes, and Native Hawaiian Organizations (NHOs). The revised regulations streamline requirements for museums and federal agencies to inventory and identify Native American human remains and cultural items in their collections.  

“The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is an essential tool for the safe return of sacred objects to the communities from which they were stolen. Among the updates we are implementing are critical steps to strengthen the authority and role of Indigenous communities in the repatriation process,” said Secretary Deb Haaland. “Finalizing these changes is an important part of laying the groundwork for the healing of our people.”

Enacted in 1990, NAGPRA, which is administered by the National Park Service, requires museums and federal agencies to identify Native American human remains, funerary items, and objects of cultural significance in their collections and collaborate with Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations to repatriate them.  

"NAGPRA is an important law that helps us heal from some of the more painful times in our past by empowering Tribes to protect what is sacred to them. These changes to the Department's NAGPRA regulations are long overdue and will strengthen our ability to enforce the law and help Tribes in the return of ancestors and sacred cultural objects," said Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland.  

"The new NAGPRA final rule is the result of many months of nation-to-nation consultation, collaboration across the Department and federal family. It represents an all-of-government approach to respecting and strengthening our Indigenous connections, enhancing our nation-to-nation relationships, and fully upholding our trust and treaty responsibilities,” said Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Shannon Estenoz.

In October 2022, the Interior Department published a proposed rule for public comment and received 181 individual submissions that yielded over 1,800 specific comments. The final regulations incorporate input from all comments, especially those from Tribes and NHOs to the maximum extent possible.  

The final rule makes a number of changes, including:  

  • Strengthening the authority and role of Tribes and NHOs in the repatriation process by requiring deference to the Indigenous Knowledge of lineal descendants, Tribes and NHOs.  
  • Requiring museums and federal agencies to obtain free, prior and informed consent from lineal descendants, Tribes or NHOs before allowing any exhibition of, access to, or research on human remains or cultural items.   
  • Eliminating the category “culturally unidentifiable human remains” and resetting the requirements for cultural affiliation to better align the regulations with congressional intent.  
    Increasing transparency and reporting of holdings or collections and shedding light on collections currently unreported under the existing regulation.   
  • Requiring museums and federal agencies to consult and update inventories of human remains and associated funerary objects within five years of this final rule.   

Secretary Haaland made the announcements in remarks at the 2023 White House Tribal Nations Summit, which provides an opportunity for the Biden-Harris administration and Tribal leaders from the 574 federally recognized Tribes to discuss ways the federal government can invest in and strengthen nation-to-nation relationships as well as ensure that progress in Indian Country endures for years to come.    

The final rule will publish in the Federal Register in the coming days. Visit the National NAGPRA website for more information.


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