With the new regulations from the Biden administration, institutions like the American Museum of Natural History in New York are now required to repatriate human remains and cultural items associated with Native American tribes. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) from 1990 also mandated this. However, the lack of historically verifiable documentation within the Native American community to prove ownership of these items has made it difficult for museums and universities.
The administration is now requiring curators to defer to the traditional knowledge of tribal leaders when returning items, even when documentary proof is unavailable. This raises concerns about inaccurate repatriation, tribal disputes, and potential loss of historical items.
Moreover, the new regulations are impacting more than just science and natural history museums. Art purchased from contemporary Native American artists is also under scrutiny, with curators being instructed to consult with tribes over the display of modern art created by Native American artists.
As items are being removed from displays and institutions of higher learning, the history, forensic scientific study, and cultural appreciation of tribes are at risk. This raises questions about the erasure of tribal cultures and the loss of their historical voice and place in the timeline of humanity.
Preserving the culture of marginalized groups should involve displaying more of it, rather than burying or hiding it from sight. There is a concern that the tribal communities’ sacred oral histories are in danger of disappearing as a result of these actions.