The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)


The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), Pub. L. 101-601, 25 U.S.C. 3001 et seq., 104 Stat. 3048, is a United States federal law enacted on 16 November 1990. The act is primarily concerned with the identification of “human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony” with goals of dialogue, respect, and repatriation or return to lineal tribal descendants.

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NAGPRA compliance is a multi-step process, one that the Davis Museum undertook during the summer of 2017. Following established NAGPRA requirements and formats, the Davis produced and distributed an "Invitation to Consult" letter for each of the tribes and nations with which the objects in our collections are associated, including an illustrated summary. Under the law, the onus then moves to the tribes to consult with the Davis regarding any object to which they feel they may have a claim for repatriation. Per regulations, the Davis provided copies of the letters and images of the objects to the NAGPRA office in Washington, DC; both have been documented and the images entered into the central database. The Davis Museum achieved full NAGPRA compliance in 2017. 

The Davis Museum should have achieved NAGPRA compliance in the 1990s, but did not. The error may be explained first by the dearth of Native American material in the collections, and secondly by an interpretation of the law at the time that none of the objects fell under the rubric or scope of the Act. Wellesley College and the Davis Museum do not hold any human remains, and until 2005 did not hold any Native American objects identified as a grave good. 

Since the 1990s, the Davis Museum has acquired one object that may be a grave good—a Mimbres bowl (2005.1)—purchased in 2005, with the guidance of James Oles, Adjunct Curator of Latin American Art at the Davis and Senior Lecturer in Wellesley’s Art Department. Mimbres bowls, with their unique and immediately recognizable designs, are associated with people who inhabited what is now the southern American southwest—mostly today’s New Mexico and Arizona—from approximately 1000 CE until 1130 CE. The bowls were objects of daily use; for burial, it is believed that they were punched through (with what is now called a “kill hole”) and placed over the deceased’s face. Thus, the kill hole is a solid indicator of the object having come from a grave. In the case of our bowl, the puncture is off center in an unusual way; it does not damage the extraordinary painted bird design. It may or may not be a grave good. 

In 2015, the Davis Museum entered the bowl (2005.1) into the Mimbres Pottery Images Digital Database (MimPIDD), maintained by Tdar (The Digital Archeological Record) and created by Harvard Peabody Museum curator Steven LeBlanc and Arizona State University Professor Michelle Hegmon. The database collects over 10,000 images of Mimbres ceramic vessels, including images and data from more than 75 collections and over 140 archaeological sites. Many American museum collections hold Mimbres bowls.

In 2016, Dr. Michelle Hegmon published the Davis Museum’s Mimbres bowl in an article (Chapter 4: Experiencing Social Change: Life during the Mimbres Classic Transformation) in the online journal The Archaeology of the Human Experience published by the Archaeology Division of the American Anthropological Association. She used the bowl to illustrate her consideration of the available evidence regarding Mimbres pottery design, production, and function. 

The Davis Museum’s Mimbres bowl has thus been made fully public for anyone who might be interested in this culture, whether this interest is related to a tribal claim or to scholarship. We are not aware of any claims, past or present, made against the vast collections of Mimbres bowls in museums across the United States and no claim has been made to the Mimbres bowl in the Davis holdings. 

As of 8/23/2017 the Davis had sent “Invitation to Consult” letters to 130 NAGPRA representatives (across 14 tribes and nations), with lineal and cultural connections to objects in the Davis Museum holdings, accompanied by illustrated inventory checklists. Although the Davis is in full NAGPRA compliance, it is clear from a decolonial perspective that due diligence is insufficient and more active strategies must be implemented to engage collaborators in meaningful dialogue. Davis staff members are now developing projects to intentionally cultivate more robust collaborations with representatives from cultures associated with artworks in the Davis collections.