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Efforts to Protect and Repatriate Native American Cultural Items and Human Remains

Posted on November 01, 2022

Native American cultural items—including pottery, weapons, and sacred objects—have long been the target of theft by individuals seeking to collect or sell them. Federal agencies and museums have also acquired Native American human remains and funerary objects over hundreds of years. Tribes consider such items priceless objects based on their importance to tribal heritage and identity, and, in many cases, their role in religious or healing practices. 

Despite federal legislation calling for their protection and repatriation, cultural items located on federal and Indian lands remain vulnerable to theft, vandalism, and destruction.  Moreover, a 2020 report estimated that there are more than 116,000 Native American human remains still in museums and other collections.

For Native American Heritage Month (November), today’s WatchBlog post looks at our recent work on federal efforts to protect Native American cultural items.



A photo of Kurt Riley, Governor Pueblo of Acoma. A quote is superimposed next to him, it reads: "These items of cultural patrimony, these aren't items of art. They have life. When we see them being sold, it's like they are taking a piece of our family."


What does the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act require?

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) requires federal agencies and museums to return certain Native American items unless they can provide that they have a right to possess the objects. Items that need to be returned may include funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony. Our work has looked at how federal agencies have implemented and enforced NAGPRA.

We testified in February on federal agencies’ progress implementing the law and challenges that remained. For example, tribal officials told us that consultation with the federal interagency working group established to help tribes protect cultural resources could be improved. Tribal members also cited challenges related to the scope of NAGPRA and limits on its ability to assist tribes in repatriating items from overseas auctions.

In our 2018, 2019, and 2021 reports we made a total of 41 recommendations to address these and other challenges. For example, in 2018, we recommended that federal agencies assess the U.S. legal framework governing the export, theft, and trafficking of Native American cultural items. As of September 2022, agencies had implemented 15 of the 41 recommendations, and 26 remained open.



A billboard in a desert environment reads "You are in Indian Country. Respect Archaeological Sites. It's illegal to vandalize or steal artifacts. Report Violations, Up to $500 Reward.


Preventing the theft and destruction of Native American cultural items

Federal laws also prohibit the theft and destruction of Native American cultural items on federal and Indian lands, and federal agencies have a role in protecting these items by investigating and prosecuting such crimes.  But, items continue to be stolen. Our review of agency data revealed that there were hundreds of incidents of theft and damage of Native American cultural resources from fiscal years 2009 through 2018. For example, in 2017, seven individuals were prosecuted and sentenced in federal district court for excavating and removing items from an Indian burial mound in Mississippi.

However, agencies did not always have the information they needed to prevent, investigate, and prosecute the theft of items on federal and Indian lands. We recommended in 2021 that federal agencies take steps to obtain needed information on the location and condition of archeological sites to help them better protect Native American cultural resources.

Our role in protecting Native American cultural resources

The United States has a unique government-to-government relationship with Indian Tribes. Consistent with this relationship, our agency’s 2022-2027 Strategic Plan includes an objective focused on the federal government’s fulfillment of its responsibilities to tribes, their members, and individual descendants. The plan highlights the need to assess federal efforts to protect Native American cultural, environmental, and natural resources. We believe that our oversight of federal programs that serve tribes and their members will help the Congress determine how best to meet the government’s longstanding commitments to Native peoples.

Learn more about our work on federal efforts to protect Native American cultural items and the laws that enforce these protections by listening to our podcast with GAO’s Anna Maria Ortiz.


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