The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was enacted in 1990. In the 30+ years it has been effective, it has never been updated. It was designed to require institutions who received funding from the US government (including federal grants) to inventory their collections and determine whether they contained any Indigenous human remains or funeral objects. If an institution discovered such items, they were required to return them to the proper tribe. The intention behind the legislation was good; however, decades later it is clear that NAGPRA has some serious flaws that have allowed institutions to hold onto Indigenous remains and funerary items.
Recently, the National Park Service met with 71 tribes to discuss the flaws and solicited proposals on how to make the law more effective. Over 700 proposals were submitted. One of the first actions the National Park Service took was to create the new full-time position of a civil penalties investigator. This person will be responsible for making sure that the statute is reaching its full potential by investigating compliance failures. The first person to hold this role is David Barland-Liles, a former law enforcement officer with the National Parks Service.
One of the most significant suggested changes to NAGPRA was to make it easier for modern tribes to connect remains and objects with their ancestors. Much of the focus in the last 30 years was on scientific evidence over tribal knowledge and tradition, putting tribes seeking repatriation at a severe disadvantage. If the institution disagreed about the connection between a tribe and the remains/objects in its possession, more weight was given to the institution. Another area of contention is that repatriation under the Act was only available to federally recognized tribes. Federal recognition has its own set of issues which means that many tribes are not given federal recognition and therefore the repatriation provisions of NAGPRA are unavailable to them. (The issues surrounding federal recognition are beyond the scope of this post—suffice it to say it places an incredibly high burden on tribes seeking recognition.)
Other suggestions include streamlining the process to make it easier for tribes to make a claim, including requiring the institution to share what information they have regarding the remains/objects and making the outcome of the dispute resolution process mandatory and not a mere suggestion.
Finally, the suggestions maintain an exception to repatriation. An institution may keep remains or funerary objects with the full knowledge and consent of the lineal descendants and that this consent must be well-documented by the institution.
The Department of the Interior (who oversees the National Parks Service) has begun review of the proposed changes, but has not announced when those amendments will be finalized.