Graphic by Anjali Vishwanath

Nestled in between the birds and primates on the third floor of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) is a crime scene.

The crime scene is two wings of the museum: the Hall of the Great Plains and the Hall of the Eastern Woodlands, which were among the first closed following new mandates to repatriate stolen and illegally displayed Indigenous artifacts in US museums. The January law is the latest step in a process of healing deep scars left by the brutal colonization of the Americas that dispossessed Indigenous peoples of their land, languages and lives. These scars cannot heal while bones and bodies of grandmothers and grandfathers still fill up museum exhibitions or collect dust in museum archives.

“My grandmother’s cousin, on my Sámi side … Her brain actually ended up being stolen and sent to the Smithsonian for scientific study,” said Justin McCarthy, a graduate student at the University of Washington studying ethnoarchaeology. He said it haltingly, voice heavy.

Despite the sensitivity of the issue, repatriation legislation divides Americans. Some, especially those in Indigenous communities, believe legislation has thus far been ineffective. Others point to exhibit closures and evolving dialogue regarding repatriation and Indigenous communities as a sign of clear progress begun by legislation.

Centuries of debate and deliberation preceded these exhibit closures. In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) went into effect. The federal government tried to push NAGPRA as an acknowledgment of the serial theft perpetrated during the age of colonization, genocide and forced resettlement of Indigenous peoples. However, the act was an empty promise. The initial version of NAGPRA was — at best — simply the acknowledgement it is still billed as on the National Park Service webpage.

On Jan. 12, 2024, an updated version of NAGPRA that imposed several deadlines for museums to repatriate objects to federally recognized tribes went into effect. The deadlines prompted several prominent museums to take immediate action, pulling or covering exhibits with contested items.

Still, the effectiveness of this 2024 action is heavily contested.

Repatriation itself is not the issue under question. The display of Indigenous remains and cultural objects without prior permission imitates colonial settlement by continuing to deny Native people autonomy over their identities — it places them subject to the historical narrative of, in this case, the ‘victors’ in the balance of power in America. 

“Because if [Indigenous people] were here now, then [museum visitors] wouldn’t be here,” explained Joseph M. Pierce, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and incoming head of the Native American studies program at Stony Brook University.

Pierce also argues that the nonconsensual display of Indigenous artifacts historicizes Native people, distancing viewers from the violence on display and absolving them of any culpability in the subjugation of these peoples. Containing the atrocities of settler colonialism to the 16th century removes from Americans — and the American government — the obligation to act on Native rights issues.

NAGPRA should be the solution: the act mandates repatriation. However, it only applies to institutions that receive federal funding, excluding private collections. The timeline lays out a multi-step, years-long process that ends in the museum either sending a “repatriation statement” or submitting a “notice of intended repatriation.” 

Another blow to NAGPRA’s effectiveness: it only mandates repatriation to the 574 federally recognized tribes. Federal recognition, in essence, affirms the sovereignty of Indigenous nations. Many tribes lost this status during what is known as the “termination era” in the 1950s through 1970s, when over 100 tribes’ federal recognition was revoked to assimilate Indigenous peoples into American society. This act forced relocation and abandonment of native lands. To this day, only some of the tribes that were targeted by this policy have regained federal recognition. Federally unrecognized tribes do have some rights under NAGPRA: they can make joint repatriation claims with other tribes. However, as mentioned on the NAGPRA website, “NAGPRA does not require museums and Federal agencies to consult with nonfederally recognized Indian groups. Nonfederally recognized Indian groups may seek the return of Native American human remains and cultural items by working with Federally recognized Indian Tribes.”

McCarthy described this limitation as a “shame.” He is Yup’ik Eskimo and Sámi. The Sámi are an Indigenous group from Scandinavia, and are not a federally recognized group in the United States. As stated in the updated legislation, “The Act limits the definition of Native American to the United States, and we cannot remove that geographical descriptor.” They are not, therefore, covered by NAGPRA. Under NAGPRA, he has no legal way to claim the brain of his grandmother’s cousin.

Although Pierce and McCarthy consider NAGPRA too little and too late, the law has had some positive effects. According to ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism group, a record high number of repatriations were conducted by American museums and universities in 2023.

Madeline del Toro Cherney, a former assistant to the curator for North American Archaeology at AMNH, remembers that the museum’s NAGPRA office was “understaffed” in the 1990s. Today, the museum has two staff members listed on the Cultural Resources Office website. The museum made headlines after the NAGPRA guidelines were updated for covering displays and closing exhibits that, according to AMNH president Sean Decatur’s statement, “display[ed] artifacts that, under the new NAGPRA regulations, could require consent to exhibit.”

Some, like Pierce, are skeptical of this response, deeming it “a bit of a knee jerk reaction.”

“It’s sort of like, ‘oh, well, we don’t want to break the law now,’” Pierce continued. “But they were sure breaking the law decades before, you know, when they were stealing the artifacts in the first place.”

Karen Levitov, director and curator of the Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery at Stony Brook University, is deeply familiar with the repatriation process. She asserted that the AMNH’s actions are a sign of real progress in the repatriation movement.

“The process of actually returning things is long,” she said. “But a lot of museums are really taking immediate steps to change what’s seen, and that is going to affect visitors a lot.”

Before coming to Zuccaire Gallery, Levitov was a curator at the Jewish Museum in New York, where she often interacted with repatriation cases due to Nazi looting of Jewish art during World War II. She described working directly with a family on the repatriation of their stolen art collection — they were able to find and return 200 of 2000 pieces.

Another impact of NAGPRA involves changes in archeological practice, which has been historically linked to looting and plundering these artifacts and remains.

“We’ve been linked to colonialism,” archaeologist and professor at Stony Brook University Katheryn Twiss acknowledged. “There’s a reason that the museums of the Western world are filled with the heritage of the whole world. And the reason is, to some extent, that in the past, it was considered acceptable for archaeologists to be like, ‘Thank you for sharing that with me. I’m taking it home now.’”

Several of Twiss’ classes cover ethical approaches to archaeology in the 21st century, something that she considers essential to the future of archaeology.

“I don’t think you can separate thinking about archaeological ethics from thinking about archaeology at its most basic level,” Twiss said. “And that is partly, I think, something that people have become increasingly aware of over the decades with all of the repatriation stuff, ethical acquisition, respectful treatment of remains. And it’s partly because [in] archaeology, we study the past, but we do it in the present. So all of the global social concerns that everybody needs to be caring about today, we need to be caring about too.”

This approach is the basis for the field of community-based archaeology. Pioneered by Sonya Atalay in her 2012 book Community-Based Archaeology Research with, by, and for Indigenous and Local Communities, community-based archaeology prioritizes communities that are directly connected to archaeological excavation sites. Community-based archaeologists make connections with locals and foster open dialogues that demystify research. This approach seeks to decolonize the field of archaeology and move it beyond the age of glorified looting.

In other words, archaeologists must proceed with deep empathy. They must attempt to carry out their duties with a similar seriousness to that which Indigenous people approach their history. This is a high expectation — McCarthy, himself an Indigenous archaeologist, described his experience on one of the rare digs he has been part of as “terrifying.”

“When you encounter ancestors there’s a very real sort of gravity to the situation that really hits you, as an indigenous person, and sort of takes your breath away,” McCarthy described. “It’s a very powerful experience, and that’s something that, unless you’re indigenous, you might not understand just how sort of moving and how powerful that is to sort of be in the presence of your ancestors and to feel that presence.”

Working with Atalay on a dig in Turkey, archaeological illustrator John Swogger  was tasked with putting this into action. The challenge: finding a way to connect with local children that would appeal to them organically. The solution: comic books.

“And we gave them out on open days to the kids, and of course, they loved them,” he remembered. “But one of the things that I noticed was that it was the adults who were really paying attention to the comics.”

A couple of years later, Swogger was on a dig in the Caribbean, where the local community was not interested in museum visits or lectures about the work being done. Inspired by the comic’s success in his work in Turkey, he drew a new set of posters to put up around the town.

“I began to think, ‘hang on a minute, this is something,’” Swogger said. “So I started to investigate the use of comics to communicate archaeology in much more depth, and realized that it really could do a very different kind of job than any other kind of outreach medium that I’d ever seen used before.”

This realization put Swogger back in contact with Atalay and Jen Shannon, who was an associate professor of cultural archeology and the curator at the Museum of Natural History at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Atalay and Shannon were working on a new project — they were seeking to tell stories about NAGPRA and repatriation at archaeological conferences. When they asked Swogger to do some illustrations for their presentation, he pitched something different: a full-length comic book.

This was the seed for the NAGPRA comic book series. Swogger, Shannon and Atalay collaborated on the first issue, conducting interviews with Indigenous people about their experiences with NAGPRA and repatriation. The first comic book, Journeys to Complete the Work, was published in 2017, in print and with a free PDF download available online. The second book, Trusting You See This As We Do, was completed in 2021, but is only available at the discretion of the Indigenous communities that participated in the creation of the book.

“The NAGPRA story is actually not just a story about artifacts in museums, because it’s a story about power dynamics,” Swogger said. “Because it’s a story about cultural revitalization, because it’s a story about languages coming back, because it’s a story about spirituality and emotions … the potential audience for that story is far greater than just legal scholars or anthropologists or museum people.”

NAGPRA is an American law, but it does not address a uniquely American problem. These power dynamics were present in colonization in all forms, all over the world. Repatriation movements exist globally, with varying degrees of success. Archaeologists, therefore, carry the same responsibilities to communities worldwide that they do in the U.S.

“When I go to a small village and go and do some archaeology, I treat that situation in exactly the same way as I treat the situation in the Pacific or exactly the same way as I treat the situation with tribes in America, realizing that I am from the outside, and I need to think about what it is that I’m taking away and make sure that that becomes an exchange, not just an assumption,” Swogger said.

Swogger will not be illustrating the next NAGPRA comic book. Rather, he hopes that the future of the project places the books in the hands of a group of Indigenous artists all over the U.S. to greater amplify Indigenous voices in the telling of their stories. NAGPRA has forced archaeologists like Swogger and Atalay to modernize their practices with respect for communities.

Despite the advances it has inspired, repatriation remains incomplete. Justin McCarthy’s family is one of many Indigenous families waiting for the return of their family members’ remains. 

To Indigenous people, “NAGPRA is the floor, not the ceiling.”

Correction 6/20/2024: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Madeline del Toro Cherney as the former curator for North American Archaeology at the American Museum of Natural History. David Hurst Thomas was, and still is the curator; Cherney worked as an assistant to the curator.

Clarification 6/21/2024: An earlier version of this story incorrectly implied that Jen Shannon was a colleague of John Swogger and Sonya Atalay. Shannon had been working as an associate professor and museum curator at the University of Colorado, Boulder while Swogger and Atalay conducted their archaeological research separately in Turkey.

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