Smithsonian Institution: Much Work Still Needed to Identify and Repatriate Indian Human Remains and Objects
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||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.||
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.
|Board of Regents||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.||
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."
|Board of Regents||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.||
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.
|Board of Regents||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.||
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.