USA Government’s New Regulations Towards Native Remains

USA Government’s New Regulations Towards Native Culture and Remains Enabled Researchers “Freedom of Conduct”.

Jul 22, 2023By Angela Davic, News, Discoveries, In-depth Reporting, and Analysis
USA Government's
Canyon de Chelly. Via America’s National Park Service.


USA government’s new regulations towards Native American culture and remains enabled researches “Freedom of Conduct”. With new incentive researchers can keep, and also destroy Native American human remains. Since the end of the 20th century, federal bodies awarded approximately $15 million in grants to various cultural institutions to deal with Native cultures. The consequences of this are great.


USA Government’s Grants Had Repurcations

Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, 2018. Photo: Josh Ewing.


Cultural treasures are often neglected, left in laboratories. The researchers did not return them to the places where they previously found them. Also, the researchers often caused them intentional damage during the analysis. It can also lead to the violation of legal acts, for example the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The act requires the government to return all remains, whether cultural or not.


The question arises as to who the research is actually for. “There’s somehow this perspective that this kind of research will enhance us or benefit us. What it does is it bolsters their careers; it bolsters their professional, academic standing. Let’s be real about it”, Theresa Pasqual, director of the historic preservation office for the Pueblo of Acoma said.


Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site. Via Wikipedia


ProPublica’s report shows in which ways government-supported research projects of this kind undermined the goals of NAGPRA. Two decades prior, Joan Brenner Coltrain, a professor of anthropology at the University of Utah, received support from the National Science Foundation (NSF). He wanted to research e human remains held at Harvard’s Peabody Museum. What was the goal of her proposal?

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What Can the NAGPRA’s Reform Bring to Native Tribes?

Untitled (Native American Camp) by William De La Montagne Cary, 1891, via The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC


Her suggestion for the project stated that it would “undoubtedly influence” an organization’s choices about remittance. The anthropologist broke up pieces of the skeletons of those she studied to examine their mitochondrial DNA. The anthropologist broke up pieces of the skeletons of those she studied to examine their mitochondrial DNA. Brenner Coltrain afterwards said in his funding report to the NSF that the study turned out to be unsatisfactory.


According to ProPublica, the Peabody Museum made no returns following the initiative. The ProRepublica also said The American Museum of Natural History and Harvard did not catalogue their holdings of Native American material until ten years after NAGPRA’s demise. When the holdings were eventually disclosed with the National Park Service, as stipulated by the legislation, nearly all of the bones were labelled as “culturally unidentifiable”.


A political cartoon highlighting the hypocrisy of native-born Americans in their disdain toward current immigrants, via The Ohio State University


This means there was an uncertainty which tribe, if any, they belonged to. Since one is able to assert legal ownership of them, the classification effectively permits the universities to keep exploiting these remains for study.  Earlier this year, the Department of the Interior proposed regulations for NAGPRA and how the act is enforced. If adopted, the changes would require researchers to demonstrate that they have consulted with tribes before obtaining an NSF grant. It would also call for institutions to stop research on Native American remains if requested by a tribe.


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By Angela DavicNews, Discoveries, In-depth Reporting, and AnalysisAngela is a journalism student at the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade and received a scholarship for continued education in Prague. She completed her internship at the daily newspaper DANAS and worked as an executive editor at Talas.