New Federal Rules Prioritize Indigenous Knowledge for Repatriation of Iwi Kūpuna and Moepū
The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) has unveiled revised federal regulations for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The new provisions prioritize and defer to Indigenous knowledge and culture when repatriating native remains and burial items.
Enacted in 1990, NAGPRA mandates that museums identify Native American human remains, funerary items, sacred objects, and other objects of cultural significance within their holdings and collections. NAGPRA defines “museum” as “any institution or state or local government agency (including any institution of higher learning) that receives federal funds and has possession of, or control over, Native American cultural items.”
These museums must then collaborate with lineal descendants, Tribes, or Native Hawaiian organizations to facilitate their repatriation.
“Finalizing these changes is an important part of laying the groundwork for the healing of our people,” said DOI Secretary Deb Haaland.
NAGPRA also addresses the discovery of Native American human remains, funerary items, sacred objects, and other objects of cultural significance from federal lands and Hawaiian Home Lands. Redefining “discovery” to include both inadvertent and intentional discoveries is significant for lineal descendants and Native Hawaiian organizations, including ʻohana – especially for those who have been engaged for decades in these matters.
The revision process for the final changes began in 2011, involving consultation sessions that extended through January 2023. In October 2022, the DOI published a proposed rule for public comment and received 181 individual submissions, generating over 1,800 specific comments.
The final rule, published on Dec. 13, 2023, takes effect on Jan. 12, 2024. It introduces comprehensive revisions and updates to the existing NAGPRA regulations – a pivotal step toward ensuring the rightful return of cultural artifacts.
The final rule revises and replaces definitions and procedures for lineal descendants, Tribes, Native Hawaiian organizations, museums, federal agencies, and the State of Hawaiʻi Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL) to implement NAGPRA.
Critically, the final rule enhances processes for the disposition and repatriation of Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. It also provides a step-by-step roadmap with specific timelines to aid all stakeholders in understanding the process and the necessary steps.
The DOI’s Office of Native Hawaiian Relations (ONHR) is seeking public input on the best ways to support lineal descendants and NHOs with the new regulations.
“We heard from the Native Hawaiian Community [about] how climate change and its effects on erosion, both coastal and inland, are causing more exposures of iwi kūpuna, moepū, and many cultural resources, said ONHR Senior Program Director Stanton Enomoto. “Thus, improvements to NAGPRA implementation on federal lands in Hawaiʻi and on Hawaiian Home Lands are very important.”
In addition to seeking funding from the National NAGPRA Program, Native Hawaiian organizations can apply for funding from ONHR’s Kapapahuliau Climate Resilience Program to cope with these climate change effects on burials.
Interested parties can email their comments to ONHR at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject “NAGPRA Final Rule.”
The final rule is available in an 89-page document on the Federal Register website