Sacred Objects: Returning Alaska Native artifacts to their rightful homes.

Author:Orr, Vanessa

For years, people traveling through Alaska--whether as prospectors, military personnel, academics, or tourists--have taken pieces of its history home with them. In many cases, these artifacts belonged to Alaska Natives, who, despite being the rightful owners, were not able to bring these items back to the 49th State and return them to the tribes and villages where they belong.

Since the establishment of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990, however, greater attention has been given to this issue. More and more people recognize the cultural significance of these items and are working to return them to their proper homes.

"Because there have been national articles written on the subject, as well as information shared on social media, people are starting to understand that these items need to be returned," says Monica Shah, director of collections and chief conservator. Anchorage Museum. "Twenty years ago, this was rarely done."


According to the National Park Service, NAGPRA provides a process for museums and federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations. These items include human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony (objects possessing continuing cultural, traditional, or historical importance to the heritage of a group).

The latest numbers from 2016 show that NAGPRA has been responsible for the reclamation of the human remains of roughly 58,000 individuals; more than 1.7 million associated and unassociated funerary objects; 5,136 sacred objects; and more than 8,000 objects of cultural patrimony.

In addition to provisions for the discovery of Native American cultural items on federal and tribal lands, NAGPRA also includes penalties for noncompliance and illegal trafficking and authorizes federal grants to help tribes and museums with the documentation and repatriation of Native American cultural items.

"When NAGPRA passed, it affected Native artifact reclamation in a big way; our museum was very active completing a lot of repatriations through that legislation," says Scott Shirar, archeology collections manager for the University of Alaska Museum of the North, located in Fairbanks.

"We are still doing repatriations today," he adds. "Outside of NAGPRA, as people are becoming more culturally aware of the importance of these artifacts to...

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