Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)

Enacted in 1990, NAGPRA is a federal law that provides a process for museums and federal agencies to return Native American human remains and cultural items to lineal descendants, federally recognized Native American tribes, and native Hawaiian organizations. The Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH) is actively engaged in the process of returning human remains and funerary objects to federally recognized Native American tribes. Our agency is dedicated to the law’s ethical basis, to the spirit of collaboration with indigenous groups it fosters, and to the truthful, respectful telling of the histories of Native American societies.

In 2018, ADAH staff determined that the agency was not in compliance with NAGPRA. This discovery initiated a period of intensive internal research and reflection on the history of the ADAH’s extensive archaeological collections and the collecting practices of previous generations. Recognizing the importance of transparency and ethical stewardship of its collections, the agency committed resources toward building a NAGPRA program. A team of staff members have been working to make our collection accessible and ready for consultation with federally recognized tribes. Consultation on the cultural affiliation of materials subject to repatriation began in 2022 and is ongoing.

The ADAH is committed to achieving the following objectives established by our Board of Trustees:

  1. Legal compliance with all aspects of NAGPRA
  2. Enhanced appreciation for native peoples’ perspectives on repatriation
  3. Sustained partnerships with tribes
  4. Improved understanding of the ADAH collections
  5. Enhanced resources for ongoing educational and research use
  6. Reputation for transparent, respectful stewardship of Native American materials
  7. Capacity to serve as a resource for other Alabama institutions with obligations under NAGPRA

Effective August 2022, all funerary materials subject to repatriation under NAGPRA are removed from display. The First Alabamians exhibit is closed, pending the development of updated content expected to be complete in 2026. All other permanent exhibitions remain open.

ADAH Land Acknowledgement

The lands comprising Alabama, the entirety of which the Department of Archives and History serves, are the traditional homelands of many indigenous groups including the Alabama, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Coushatta, Creek, and Seminole peoples and their ancestors.

The ADAH honors native peoples’ deeply rooted histories and ongoing connection to the land. We remain dedicated to preserving and sharing the experiences of Alabama’s first peoples and their descendants.

Kellie Bowers
NAGPRA Coordinator
Robby Elmore
NAGPRA Collections Curator
Frequently Asked Questions

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) is a federal law that was enacted in 1990. It provides a process for museums and federal agencies to return Native American human remains and cultural items to lineal descendants, federally recognized Native American tribes, and Native Hawaiian Organizations in a process called repatriation. More information can be found at the National Parks Service Website.

All federal agencies are subject to NAGPRA. All public and private museums that have received federal funds, other than the Smithsonian Institution, are also subject to NAGPRA.

An item is subject to repatriation if it can be reasonably identified as one of the following types of materials:

  • Human Remains: The physical remains of the body of a person of Native American ancestry.

  • Funerary Objects: Objects that, as a part of the death rite or ceremony of a culture, are reasonably believed to have been placed with individual human remains either at the time of death or later.

  • Sacred Objects: Specific ceremonial objects which are needed by traditional Native American religious leaders for the practice of traditional Native American religions by their present-day adherents.

  • Objects of Cultural Patrimony: Objects having ongoing historical, traditional, or cultural importance central to the Native American group or culture itself, rather than property owned by an individual Native American.

The ADAH’s archaeological collections consist of more than 326,000 objects from more than 150 archaeological sites. Nearly all the materials were excavated in the first half of the twentieth century and donated to the ADAH by members of the Alabama Anthropological Society (AAS), an organization of archaeology enthusiasts that was active between 1909 and the 1940s. The goals of the AAS included researching and documenting Native American sites throughout the state and securing a collection of artifacts for exhibition and research at the ADAH. The ADAH’s first and third directors, Thomas M. Owen and Peter Brannon, were members of the AAS and facilitated the transfer of materials to the state agency, where they were the subjects of scholarly research and exhibition for generations.

The materials involved in consultation and repatriation in 2022 and 2023 represent the total amount of human remains and associated funerary objects (items removed from the same burials as the human remains) in the ADAH’s collections. These include 115 sets of human remains and approximately 6,400 funerary objects excavated from approximately 22 sites.

The remainder of the ADAH’s archaeological collections include approximately 322,000 Native American items. Fifty-seven percent of these materials are documented to be unassociated funerary objects (items removed from burials, but for which no human remains are held) and subject to repatriation in 2024 and beyond. Additional evaluation and consultation are required to determine the status of the balance of the collection.

Determination of which tribal nations are eligible to claim the materials is made through consultation between the ADAH and federally recognized tribes in a process regulated by NAGPRA. When determining cultural affiliation, participants consider criteria such as geographic location, distinctive syles in material culture, and distinctive burial practices. After cultural affiliation is determined and reported publicy in the Federal Register, a lineal descendant or culturally affiliated tribe may file a claim for repatriation of the materials.

In 2011 and 2014 the ADAH opened permanent exhibitions in its Museum of Alabama that rely heavily on unassociated funerary objects (items removed from burials, but for which no human remains are held) to interpret the development of Native American society. On August 10, 2022, the ADAH announced the closing of The First Alabamians, its exhibition on Native Americans from prehistory to 1700. The First Alabamians contains the largest number of Native American artifacts subject to repatriation under NAGPRA. Additional funerary materials in Alabama Voices, the museum’s centerpiece exhibition covering 1700 to the present, have been removed from display. All exhibitions except The First Alabamians will remain open to general visitors and to school field trips.

The ADAH plans to modify the exhibitions by introducing artifacts that were not part of burials and by incorporating significant advances in archaeological study of indigenous cultures over the past decade. Most notably, the exhibits will newly introduce perspectives offered by numerous tribal groups and highlight the continued vibrancy of indigenous cultures originating from Alabama. Preliminary plans call for the revised exhibits to be open by 2026.

Our goal is to enter respectful partnerships with Native American tribes that will improve our ability to share Alabama’s rich native heritage.

Updated 2/10/2023