Native American groups are supporting new federal regulations on handling Native art and culture. Overall, the regulations mandate that museums obtain permission before displaying specific cultural artefacts and human remains. This followed many cultural institutions in the US last week’s closure of Indigenous object exhibits. Among these institutions are the Field Museum and American Museum of Natural History.
Native American Groups Say Regulations are Crystal Clear
Besides these institutions, Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, and the Cleveland Museum of Art a few days later, used a similar strategy. The Association on American Indian Affairs’ head, Shannon O’Loughlin, said covering up exhibits or removing items isn’t the aim. Instead, it’s a step in an extremely lengthy procedure of repatriating them.
“The new regulations are crystal clear now: institutions do not own much of their Native collections. Therefore, they must ask for consent from affiliated nations before they can do anything with these items. When institutions actually have a conversation with affiliated nations, they finally learn what they have in their collections”, she said.
The legislation only permits the return of Native American artefacts to their original owners if a museum or other organisation can demonstrate that they obtained permission. The National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institute is exempt from the statute. The rules are an extension of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which Republican President George H.W. Bush signed into law in 1990.
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Are New Regulations Violating the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution?
The Native Governance Center stated in a social media post that NAGPRA originally took effect almost thirty years ago. Also, that the progress is “incredibly slow” toward the restoration of about 96,000 human remains. Nevertheless, “changes to the law this month have already created some real short-term changes across the U.S.”, the organization said. Professionals and academics working in museums often expressed worry that the new rules may hinder or restrict research or suppress scientific inquiry.
Elizabeth Weiss, an anthropology professor at San Jose State University, authored a recent op-ed in the City Journal. She asserted that the rules “depart completely” from the initial law’s purpose. Also, that it could violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Many NAGPRA backers claim there is no basis for the alarmist statements made by Weiss and other detractors. They also noted that adherence to the new rules does not imply that Native American-themed museum exhibits will be permanently closed.
“This is not a prohibition against research or exhibits—quite the opposite”, O’Loughlin says. “Institutions have long-lasting relationships with those Native Nations and have developed strong exhibitions and research based on that consultation and collaboration, which includes the expertise and knowledge of Native Nations that science has ignored”.