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.
Matter for Congressional Consideration
|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.||As of August 2015, Congress had not taken action to implement this matter.|
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Board of Regents||1. 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.|
|Board of Regents||2. 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.|
|Board of Regents||3. 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.|
|Board of Regents||4. 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.|