Mad Scramble in US Museums on Native American Displays

New rules handed down by Biden administration prohibit such exhibits without consent from tribes
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 26, 2024 1:03 PM CST
Mad Scramble in US Museums on Native American Displays
Stock photo of the Museum of Natural History in New York City.   (Getty Images/RobinsonBecquart)

Museums across America have started closing exhibits highlighting Native American artifacts in an attempt to comply with new Biden administration rules that mandate venues get the OK from Indigenous tribes before displaying those samples. The requirements under the updated Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, originally passed in 1990, went into effect on Jan. 12, meaning that all museums and federal agencies must obtain "informed consent before any exhibition of, access to, or research on human remains or cultural items" from Native American tribes, per Native News Online.

That outlet notes the three-decades-long effort to see human remains and cultural artifacts returned to their tribes, with more than 96,000 sets of human remains still hosted in various institutions nationwide. Museums and other venues now have five years to work with tribes and facilitate the return of any bones, funerary objects, or other items. Additional changes in the law include placing responsibility for the initial reaching-out on the museums, not on the tribes, and nixing the term "culturally unidentifiable" from exhibit descriptions, which has been keeping items from being returned to their rightful owners.

"It's freaking huge," the Choctaw Nation's Shannon O'Loughlin, CEO of the Association on American Indian Affairs, says of the law's overhaul, per Native News Online. Venues across the US—including Chicago's Field Museum and Harvard's Peabody Museum—are now covering up display cases, removing artifacts, or even shuttering entire halls, as New York City's Museum of Natural History is about to do, per the New York Times. "The halls we are closing are artifacts of an era when museums such as ours did not respect the values, perspectives, and indeed shared humanity of Indigenous peoples," museum chief Sean Decatur wrote in a Friday memo to staff.

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"Actions that may feel sudden to some may seem long overdue to others," he noted, adding that the Eastern Woodlands and Great Plains halls that are closing down during the consultation period are "severely outdated," per CNN. "We're finally being heard—and it's not a fight, it's a conversation," Myra Masiel-Zamora, curator for the Pechanga Band of Indians, tells the Times, which notes the museums aren't, for the most part, fighting the new regulations. Institutions not sure how to prep their own Native American displays for repatriation by 2029 can tap into a handy FAQ published by the NAGPRA team. (More Native Americans stories.)

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