NAGPRA covers specifically defined Native American ‘cultural items’ that were either held by museums or federal agencies as of 16 November 1990 or that are newly found on federal or Indian lands. Under NAGPRA, ‘cultural items’ are human remains, funerary objects, and narrowly defined classes of ‘sacred items’ and collectively owned ‘objects of cultural patrimony’. Claimants recognized by the law include lineal descendants (in the rare cases in which they can be identified), federally recognized Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations. The Smithsonian
Institution is exempt from NAGPRA but is covered by the National Museum of the American Indian Act (20 USC 80q). The implementation of the law is governed by regulations promulgated by the Department of the Interior (43 CFR 10).
Generally speaking, a federally recognized Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization that is determined to have a ‘cultural affiliation’ with human remains or other cultural items is entitled to their repatriation. Cultural affiliation is defined in the law to mean ‘‘a relationship of shared group identity which can be reasonably traced historically or prehistorically between a present day Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization and an identifiable earlier group.’’ As the pivotal concept in the law, cultural affiliation defines the threshold for closeness of relationship that is required for a modern group to be entitled to repatriate Native American human remains or other cultural items.
NAGPRA provides for repatriation of human remains and other cultural items that are held by museums or federal agencies and, somewhat differently, with human remains and objects that are newly discovered on federal or Indian land as a result of an ongoing excavation or inadvertent discovery.