March 26, 2024

New NAGPRA Rules: ‘A State of Gozhoo’

Part 2: Repatriation of ancestral remains and cultural items restores balance and healing to tribal communities and the rest of the world.



This is the second installment in a three-part series examining the impact of new rules under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Vernelda Grant recalls weeping while reading historic journals kept by White settlers and U.S. soldiers describing how they obtained sacred Indigenous items from the Apache people.

The settlers preyed on her peoples’ starvation or dug through graves for items they considered as collectible trinkets.

“Our people were starving and forced to trade their precious objects for the sake of having something to eat,” said Grant, director of the San Carlos Apache’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office.

“I cried when I read those writings in anthropological archives. Our people didn’t have a choice.

Now, hope is growing for healing after generations of loss, as new federal rules under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, are forcing a renewed look at Indigenous items held by museums, universities and other institutions.

Repatriation of ancestral remains and artifacts can help restore healing and balance to Indigenous communities and to the world, Grant told ICT.

To the Apache people, and others, it’s known as Gozhoo, or balance. Gozhoo is central to the Apache worldview; it describes the happiness and fulfillment that is derived from harmony and balance among oneself, community and the natural world. All living things — birds, insects, clouds, water, animals and humans — occupy the same level of importance and are imbued with spirit, according to Grant. Most Indigenous peoples share a similar worldview.

“The return of our sacred items heals us by restoring a state of Gozhoo,” said Grant, who has served as the tribe’s NAGPRA representative for more than 24 years and who holds a master’s degree in archaeology and anthropology from Northern Arizona University.

“Our elders tell us that the people who hold our holy things and ancestors in their collections don’t understand this, but they will be happier in their own lives,” she said. “Ni gosdz (the earth) will be happier if they restore these things to their proper place.”

The Arizona-based San Carlos Apache Tribe is part of the All Apache NAGPRA Working Group, which includes the White Mountain Apache Tribe, Camp Verde Yavapai-Apache Nation and Payson Tonto Apache Tribe, also of Arizona; and the Mescalero Apache Tribe, the Jicarilla Apache Tribe and Fort Sill Apache Tribe, of New Mexico.

The seven tribes conduct research, submit and pursue claims jointly and travel to museums that hold Apache collections.

Stealing Indigenous remains and sacred items reflects the dominant culture’s reliance on objectifying and dismissing people of color in order to elevate their own status, according to Anton Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University in Minnesota.

Making a psychic jump away from that worldview has been challenging to institutions that have historically been driven by a perspective that privileges the colonial gaze.

“It’s about erasure,” said Treuer, a descendant of the Leech Lake Ojibwe Nation and a member of the governing board for the Minnesota State Historical Society.

“Some items have a life of their own,” Treuer said. “Sacred objects are not just things that are associated with the ceremony. They are sacred in and of themselves. They belong in their cultural context, not behind a wall of glass.”

Scrambling to comply

The federal NAGPRA law was passed in 1990 to provide protection for Native American graves and the repatriation of remains and cultural patrimony by public institutions, requiring consultation with tribes, Native Hawaiians and Alaska Natives.

Many museums and other institutions, however — including private institutions that received federal funds such as COVID or stimulus funds — have lagged in identifying remains and cultural items, leaving warehouses full of remains and display cases full of items that should be returned to their tribes under the law.

As of January, public institutions held nearly 100,000 Indigenous remains and nearly 700,000 associated funerary objects in their collections, many of which have been declared as culturally unaffiliated with modern-day tribes despite opposition to the decisions.

On Jan. 12, the federal government enacted changes to NAGPRA known as the “final rule” that sets a deadline for returning remains and requires institutions to work more closely with local tribes to identify appropriate homes for the remains and sacred items.

The new rules left museums scrambling to comply with the law, in some cases by shuttering exhibits or covering display cases until the items could be properly reviewed.

“It’s difficult for curators, museum professionals and archeologists to see remains and funerary objects from their collections go back into the ground because it challenges their entire livelihood and practice,” said Matthew Bussler, the tribal historic preservation officer for the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi in Michigan.

“They are looking at these things as inanimate objects rather than living, ceremonial items,” he added.

For many academics and collectors, accumulating Indigenous patrimony can be an expression of cultural dominance, Bussler said.

“They want to acquire the rarest materials,” he said. “It gives them a sense of power.”

Funerary items are viewed as very personal by Indigenous peoples, connected to the person who died and unsuitable for public display. Descendants of those who died during the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre are now grappling with disposition of funerary items recently repatriated to Lakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

“The objects are part of the people that died there,” said historian Michael He Crow, Miniconjou Lakota. “Those were real personal things to them. And so it would be like an extension of their bodies and a part of them physically. So, [putting them in a museum] would just be like displaying a hand or foot that was repatriated.”

Welcome home

The healing process begins when the items are brought home in a culturally appropriate way.

Treuer, who has been involved with numerous repatriations, said remains and funerary objects are typically reburied with appropriate mourning periods and ceremonies.

Ceremonial practitioners and elders are sometimes brought in to consult on how other items should be treated. Some objects, such as pipes, may be cleaned, blessed and reintroduced into tribal use. Other repatriated objects may be put back into sacred use, helping to restore ceremonies in communities.

Treuer described how a large ceremonial drum, part of the Ojibwe Big Drum Society, was returned to the White Earth Band of Ojibwe in the 1990s by a Christian church in the area.

Traditionally, each Ojibwe community in Minnesota and Wisconsin maintained their own Big Drum Society, part of a social healing ceremony that dates back to the 18th century. For Ojibwe, these drums have a spirit of their own and are cared for as one would care for a relative.

As a result of assimilationist policies, however, the White Earth community stopped performing the ceremony sometime around World War II, Treuer said.

The repatriated drum has now helped restore the use of ceremony and has been used every spring and summer since it returned home, Treuer said.

“Now there’s a vibrant ceremonial drum in the community,” Treuer said. “The people of White Earth no longer have to travel for healing. They have a place to go, bring their food and make offerings.”

Some communities also opt to display items in their own museums, but it should not be left to colonial institutions to determine what is shown to the public, he said.

“Tribes are not averse to museums,” he said. “They see a value to sharing their culture but doing so on their own terms.”

Repatriation has the power to restore peace, according to Grant.

“Bringing our sacred items home helps restore the cycle of life,” she said.

Looking ahead

Grant and other Indigenous people working with tribal NAGPRA programs believe the recent changes in the law reflect a step toward gaining more understanding of the Indigenous world view.

Public institutions, they say, can no longer afford to conduct business as usual, ignoring tribal interests in the current political climate. They risk not only violating federal law but also losing membership and donations because of negative publicity.

“Institutions are trying to figure out how to be enticing to young people and be more inclusive to people of color,” Treuer said. “It’s just wise practice for them to build relationships and just do the right thing.”

Non-Native people are also thinking twice about the practice of collecting and displaying Indigenous patrimony, according to Grant.

“I think they are opening up their hearts, more especially in response to the state of our warming planet,” she said.

“Attaining that state of Gozhoo is something we all need to work on, not just for ourselves but for the health and wellness of people around us.”

Lead image: The Ohio History Connection in Columbus possesses the largest collection of Native American remains in the United States. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/ICT)

About the author

Mary Annette Pember

Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for ICT.