Smithsonian Institution:

Much Work Still Needed to Identify and Repatriate Indian Human Remains and Objects

GAO-11-515: Published: May 25, 2011. Publicly Released: May 25, 2011.

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The National Museum of the American Indian Act of 1989 (NMAI Act), as amended in 1996, generally requires the Smithsonian Institution to inventory and identify the origins of its Indian human remains and objects placed with them (funerary objects) and repatriate them to culturally affiliated Indian tribes upon request. It also creates a special committee to oversee this process. According to the Smithsonian, two of its museums--the American Indian and the Natural History Museums-- have items that are subject to the act. GAO was asked to determine (1) the extent to which the Smithsonian has fulfilled its repatriation requirements, (2) how the special committee provisions have been implemented, and (3) the number of human remains and objects that have been repatriated and reasons for any that have not. GAO reviewed museum records, including 171 repatriation case reports, and interviewed Smithsonian, Repatriation Review Committee, and tribal officials.

Since the NMAI Act was enacted, in 1989, more than 21 years ago, the Smithsonian has offered to repatriate over 5,000 human remains, which account for approximately one-third of the total estimated human remains in its collections. The Smithsonian has also offered to repatriate over 212,000 funerary objects, but the extent of progress is unknown because the Smithsonian has no reliable estimate of the total number of such objects in its collections. The Smithsonian generally makes repatriation decisions based on detailed case reports, and had completed 171 case reports as of December 31, 2010. Developing these case reports is a lengthy and resource-intensive process, in part because the NMAI Act generally requires the Smithsonian to use the best available scientific and historical documentation to identify the origins of its Indian human remains and funerary objects. The Smithsonian originally estimated that the repatriation process would take about 5 years; however, at the pace that it is progressing, GAO believes it could take several more decades to complete this process. In response to the special committee requirements of the NMAI Act, the Smithsonian established a Repatriation Review Committee to monitor and review the Natural History Museum's repatriation activities. Although the Smithsonian believes Congress intended to limit the committee's jurisdiction to the Natural History Museum, the statutory language and its legislative history do not support that view. Since it was established, the committee has provided no oversight over the repatriation activities of the American Indian Museum. In addition, GAO found that neither the Smithsonian nor the committee has provided regular information to Congress on the repatriation progress at the Smithsonian. Although this reporting is not required by the act, given the length of time this process has taken and is expected to take in the future, policymakers do not have information that would keep them apprised of the Smithsonian's repatriation efforts. The committee also hears disputes concerning decisions over the return of human remains and objects, but it does not make binding decisions. Moreover, the Smithsonian has no independent administrative appeals process by which tribes who would like to challenge a repatriation decision can seek recourse, and judicial review of the Smithsonian's repatriation decisions may not be practical. Through December 31, 2010, the Smithsonian estimates that, of the items it has offered for repatriation, about three-quarters of the Indian human remains (4,330 out of 5,980) and about half of the funerary objects (99,550 out of 212,220) have been repatriated. The remaining items have not been repatriated for various reasons, including tribes' lack of resources and cultural beliefs. Resources needed include staff to work on repatriations and appropriate locations to rebury or house the items. In addition, the Smithsonian has not repatriated approximately 340 human remains and 310 funerary objects because it has determined that they cannot be culturally affiliated with a tribe, and it does not have a policy on the disposition of these items. The lack of such a policy limits the transparency of the Smithsonian's actions in handling culturally unidentifiable items for both tribes and policymakers. GAO suggests that Congress may wish to consider ways to expedite the Smithsonian's repatriation process, and recommends that the Smithsonian take actions to expand the oversight and reporting role of the special committee, establish an administrative appeals process, and develop a policy for the disposition of culturally unidentifiable items. The Smithsonian agreed with GAO's findings and recommendations.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matter for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: Congress may wish to consider ways to expedite the Smithsonian's repatriation process including, but not limited to, directing the Smithsonian to make cultural affiliation determinations as efficiently and effectively as possible.

    Status: Open

    Comments: As of May 2013, Congress had not taken action to implement this matter.

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: Smithsonian Institution's Board of Regents should direct the Secretary of the Smithsonian to expand the Review Committee's jurisdiction to include the American Indian Museum, as required by the NMAI Act, to improve oversight of Smithsonian repatriation activities. With this expanded role for the Review Committee, the Board of Regents and the Secretary should also consider where the most appropriate location for the Review Committee should be within the Smithsonian's organizational structure.

    Agency Affected: Smithsonian Institution: Board of Regents

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In July 2011, the Smithsonian reiterated its disagreement with GAO's conclusion that the NMAI Act requires the Review Committee to exercise jurisdiction over the American Indian Museum's repatriation activities. However, the Smithsonian did recognize that improved coordination, consultation and communication between Natural History and American Indian Museums with regard to repatriation activities may result in an expanded role for the Review Committee as an additional resource for the American Indian Museum Board of Trustees. In June 2012, the Smithsonian said that the American Indian Museum Board of Trustees may seek the advice of the Review Committee with respect to any disputed claim or repatriation-related matter. Also, it said that the American Indian Museum, with tribal permission, will also share with the Review Committee copies of all final reports addressing American Indian Museum repatriations, stating that such information-sharing will provide the committee with a much more robust picture of repatriation activities across the Smithsonian and provide an opportunity for better integration of the committee within both museums. However, the Smithsonian did not take action to expand the Review Committee's jurisdiction to include the American Indian Museum.

    Recommendation: Smithsonian Institution's Board of Regents, through the Secretary, should direct the Review Committee to report annually to Congress on the Smithsonian's implementation of its repatriation requirements in the NMAI Act to provide Congress with information on the Smithsonian's repatriation activities.

    Agency Affected: Smithsonian Institution: Board of Regents

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On July 31, 2012, the Smithsonian submitted its first annual repatriation report to Congress titled "Annual Report of the Repatriation Activities of the Smithsonian Institution 2011.

    Recommendation: Smithsonian Institution's Board of Regents should establish an independent administrative appeals process for Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations to appeal decisions to either the Board of Regents or another entity that can make binding decisions for the Smithsonian Institution to provide tribes with an opportunity to appeal cultural affiliation and repatriation decisions made by the Secretary and the Board of Trustees.

    Agency Affected: Smithsonian Institution: Board of Regents

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In November 2012, the Natural History Museum issued a revised repatriation policy. The policy states that an appeal of the Under Secretary's repatriation decision may be directed to the Secretary of the Smithsonian for review and final decision. In February 2013, the American Indian Museum issued a revised repatriation policy that includes an appeals process. The process says that, in the event of an appeal, the Undersecretary for History, Art, and Culture will convene an Appeals Committee that will consist of the Undersecretary, the Vice Chair of the museum's Board of Trustees, and the Policy and Budget Committee Chair of the museum's Board of Trustees. These individuals will recuse themselves from all discussions and votes on all repatriation questions, thus preserving their separation from the museum's Board of Trustees Repatriation process.

    Recommendation: Smithsonian Institution's Board of Regents should direct the Secretary and the American Indian Museum's Board of Trustees to develop policies for the Natural History and American Indian Museums for the handling of items in their collections that cannot be culturally affiliated to provide for a clear and transparent repatriation process.

    Agency Affected: Smithsonian Institution: Board of Regents

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2012, the Natural History Museum issued an amended repatriation policy that documents its policy on the treatment of items in the museum's collections that cannot be culturally affiliated and, in February 2013, the American Indian Museum issued a revised repatriation policy that documents its policy and the handling of these items.

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