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Opinion. Since Christopher Columbus got lost and landed in what is now the modern-day Dominican Republic, non-Natives have been fascinated with Native Americans. 

After seeing the splendor of life in the Western Hemisphere, Columbus loaded up his vessels on his return trip to Spain with gold, plants and even some Native Americans to showcase to Europeans. Since Europeans were coming out of the Dark Ages, the Native people and goods he stumbled upon presented new fascinations.

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The fascinations didn’t just continue on Columbus’s subsequent voyages — they continue today. Since 1492, non-Natives have continually sought to research, examine and showcase our continent’s Indigenous peoples. This fascination led to museums collecting hundreds of thousands of Native cultural artifacts and the remains of deceased Indigenous people — also known as our ancestors.   

During the Dakota Access pipeline resistance, I spoke to Phyllis Young, a former Standing Rock tribal council member about a protest on land that contained unmarked burial sites. She told me there was some land due to be excavated to make room for the unwanted pipeline. The strip of land contained unmarked graves that they did not want destroyed. She said they were unmarked because they did not want grave robbers to dig up their ancestors. Because, sadly, non-Natives have a fascination with deceased Native Americans.

Nonprofit investigative news outlet ProPublica reported last year that museums across America had yet to repatriate more than 110,000 Native American remains. This is in spite of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 — commonly known as NAGPRA. For decades, the museums found loopholes in the law to get around NAGPRA and have kept ancestral remains in their collections.

And then, at last December’s White House Tribal Nations Summit, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) announced that revisions to NAGPRA would be published in the Federal Register with a 30-day period for comment before they would be implemented. The revisions would, among other things, close the loopholes.  

By mid-January, the updated NAGPRA regulations went into effect. Museums nationwide began to follow the updated guidelines. 

The final rule, nearly three years in the making, also expedites and simplifies the process for tribal nations seeking their relatives’ return. It also sets a strict five-year deadline for museums to re-inventory and return their collections of Native American human remains and burial objects  to their present-day tribal nations.

“The first set of regulations left a lot of loopholes that institutions that did not want to comply with NAGPRA used to delay or prevent repatriation and burden Native Nations,” Shannon O’Loughlin (Choctaw Nation), chief executive and attorney of the nonprofit Association on American Indian Affairs told me last week. “The new regulations have closed up all of these loopholes. One of the changes is an express provision that institutions have to ask for ‘free, prior and informed consent’ to do anything with Native collections, including research, exhibitions, loans or otherwise.”

Museums across America have moved quickly to abide by the updated NAGPRA regulations, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and Field Museum in Chicago, among others. Some have actually closed exhibition halls to comply with the updated regulations.

Conservatives have pushed back on the updated regulations, calling them “woke” and accusing the Interior Department of erasing Native American history. 

Let’s be honest. There has been plenty of erasure of Native history in America, but this isn’t it.  

Museums should never hold onto human remains or any object deemed sacred by tribes, NAGPRA notwithstanding.  

“Remember that NAGPRA is simply an administrative process for returning stolen ancestors and items” AAIA’s O’Loughlin said.

Two weeks ago at the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) Executive Council Winter Session, Secretary Haaland praised Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland (Bay Mills Indian Community) for the NAGPRA updates. Haaland said the updates give power back to tribes in reclaiming sacred objects through laws 

“We’re ensuring that tribes have a critical role in helping determine if and how items that are rightfully theirs are returned for museums and other institutions. I know this law has been on the books for many decades, but we believe that these updates provide the kind of accountability that tribes have long asked for.” Haaland said. “This is not business as usual. It is part of how we are challenging power structures.” 

If conservative columnists, politicians and benefactors truly want to ensure that Native Americans are not erased, they should stop fixating on our ancestors’ bones. There are plenty of things they can do to ensure contemporary Natives — those of us with blood running through our veins — can live in modest prosperity. Here’s a short list:  Honor treaties. Respect tribal sovereignty. Give our land back. Fund the healthcare and education we were promised. Protect our hunting and fishing rights. 

There’s plenty more, but this would be a good start.   

Thayék gde nwéndëmen - We are all related.

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About The Author
Levi Rickert
Author: Levi RickertEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Levi "Calm Before the Storm" Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is the founder, publisher and editor of Native News Online. Rickert was awarded Best Column 2021 Native Media Award for the print/online category by the Native American Journalists Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association. He can be reached at [email protected].