The Arizona State Museum on the University of Arizona campus is home to hundreds of thousands of Native American artifacts. Among the museum's collections are thousands of human remains and funerary objects, which the museum is diligently working on returning to the American Indian tribes to which they rightfully belong.
To support those efforts, the National Park Service recently awarded the Arizona State Museum a federal grant of just under $90,000, which will help the museum work with human remains and artifacts excavated from state trust lands, primarily in the Tucson Basin. These include remains and objects from 70 archaeological sites, said Patrick Lyons, the museum’s associate director.
The grant was part of more than $1.6 million awarded by the National Park Service to museums and tribes across the country to help them with the documentation and return of human remains and cultural objects, a process known as repatriation.
Like all museums that receive federal funding, the Arizona State Museum is required to repatriate certain cultural objects under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA. Enacted in 1990, the federal law requires all museums that receive federal dollars to return specified items, including human remains and sacred objects, to the tribes with whom they are culturally affiliated.
The process can be complex and lengthy and involves ongoing collaboration with tribal leaders throughout the state, Lyons said. Museum staff must spend hours sorting through massive collections to determine which objects are subject to NAGPRA, document those items, make evidence-based determinations of their cultural affiliation and publish federal notices when objects are ready to be returned so that tribes can make claims.
“It’s important work; it’s painstaking work. It takes a long time, and we want to do it right,” Lyons said, “It’s also sensitive work, so we don’t want to rush through it.”
Last week, the Arizona State Museum held a panel discussion in which museum staff spoke to members of the community about NAGPRA and repatriation. Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva gave opening remarks at the event and thanked the museum for its work.
“This museum has been a leader in repatriation since before NAGPRA went into effect,” he said, adding that he is a strong supporter of NAGPRA and tribal rights.
Grijalva acknowledged how significant Arizona’s native people are to the state’s history and culture and said he was proud of the Arizona State Museum’s work with tribes across the state.
“I thank the people who do that work for their compassion their sensitivity and their patience, because repatriation is not just a gesture to give back, it’s a process,” he said.
Although its work is ongoing, the Arizona State Museum has made significant progress since NAGPRA took effect in 1990, returning thousands of items to tribes across the state and setting a national example for successful repatriation efforts.
“We’ve been held up as an example by the Bureau of Indian Affairs about how to do things and that makes us proud,” Lyons said. “We hear a lot of good things from the tribes as well, so that must mean we’re doing something right.”