Recently several major museums have taken the significant step of removing Native American cultural items from display. The American Museum of Natural History, the Field Museum, and Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology are a few of the big names acting [1]. It may seem sudden, but the situation has been years in the making. Museums are covering certain exhibits of Indigenous belongings in response to the new regulations for the Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The new regulations, which were published in December, are not without their controversies and complexities but they do address major loopholes in the previous regulations. 

I have previously written about NAGPRA and some of the challenges that accompany it. The Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation Act was passed into law in 1990 and provided a legal path for federally recognized tribes to reclaim ancestors, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. For thirty-three years the regulations, or rules, that institutions must follow to be in compliance, remained substantially unchanged. During those more than three decades, relatively little progress toward repatriation was made by most institutions. The new regulations, if nothing else, light a fire under certain institutions to work towards compliance. 

The previously proposed timeline for compliance was two years, which has been increased to five after public feedback from both institutions and tribes. Being realistic, it’s unlikely that all or even most, institutions will be compliant by 2029. As of 2023, less than 40% of institutions have repatriated the ancestors in their care as appropriate. The sheer size of museum collections along with the time and labor required for provenance research and consultation makes NAGPRA compliance a massive undertaking. Yet, it is significant that major players are taking the new regulations seriously. So why, if the path to repatriation is so long, are we seeing Native American cultural exhibits disappearing from public view?

It has to do with one of the major changes in the new NAGPRA regulations that introduced no small amount of frenzied activity behind the scenes in museums. The new regulations include a provision for “duty of care,” which requires that museums and institutions “Obtain free, prior, and informed consent from lineal descendants, Indian Tribes, or Native Hawaiian organizations prior to allowing any exhibition of, access to, or research on human remains or cultural items.”[1] Essentially, museums can no longer display items which fall under NAGPRA without prior consent of tribes who have a claim. 

The issue arises that many museums do not know which items may be subject to NAGPRA. They may have patchy provenance or even questionable identification of items currently on display. Many institutions are choosing to operate cautiously on the assumption that all or most items on display could be subject to NAGPRA. This assumption means that the continued display of these items would be a violation. As both museums in tribes embark on the consultation process, we will see revised versions of these exhibits return. I would hazard a guess of a timeline of about three to five years. Hopefully museums will take this opportunity to collaborate with tribes on more thoughtful and accurate representations of Native cultures. 

[1] “A Famed NYC Museum Is Closing 2 Native American Halls, and Others Have Taken Similar Steps,” CBS News, January 27, 2024,

[2] 43 CFR § 10.1 (d)(3),