The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is a U.S. federal law that mandates the return of human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony to lineal descendants, Native American tribes, Alaskan natives, and Native Hawaiian organizations. The Yale Peabody Museum continues to steward the remains of hundreds of Native American ancestors. There is no excusing the colonialist collecting practices of the 19th and early 20th centuries that cruelly removed these individuals from their resting places. And there is no apology or explanation that could repair the harm that has been caused. The complex process of respectful and culturally sensitive repatriation is one of the ways that we, as a museum, can be held accountable for the deplorable actions that led to this unacceptable situation.
Since the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990, staff at the Peabody have worked to repatriate the remains of individuals callously collected in the past. Though hundreds of repatriations have been completed, there is a great deal more work to do. In partnership with the University, we are increasing staff and funding to support these efforts and remain committed to doing all we can to ensure that these ancestors go home.
We acknowledge that this aspect of the Museum’s legacy is tragic. The staff of the Peabody and the leadership of the University are entirely aligned in our desire to return ancestral remains and sacred objects to their communities of origin. Additional staff will give us scope to take on more repatriation work outside of NAGPRA. That work will include expanding our consultation efforts with Indigenous communities around the country and lead to more repatriations in coming years. We are completely committed to these efforts.
— David Skelly, Director of the Yale Peabody Museum
The Yale Peabody Museum believes that repatriation is just the beginning of our commitment to form long-standing relationships with Native American tribes and other descendant communities, both locally and around the world.
In addition to its full-time Repatriation Registrar, the Peabody is adding additional staff members dedicated to the Museum’s support of NAGPRA and repatriation, and is engaging in ongoing modifications to storage and object handling policies in consultation with tribes according to cultural specifications. In dedication to this important work, the Peabody has completed repatriations of ancestor remains and cultural objects, received NAGPRA grants to support projects, and built ongoing partnerships with tribes, lineal descendants, and communities of origin.
- In October 2022, after years of consultations and planning, representatives and lineal descendants from the Village of Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska traveled to New Haven to retrieve the remains and cultural items of their Nunamiut ancestors. While at the Museum, Elders, the Tribal President, and a high school student from the Village worked with Peabody staff to properly pack the repatriated collection for transportation, a trip that required traveling two days each way between the Village and Connecticut.
- In June 2018, the remains of 7 Māori ancestors were repatriated to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. A public ceremony at the Peabody brought together the delegation of Te Papa representatives, Peabody staff, Yale faculty, students from Yale’s Native American Cultural Center, and Chief Many Hearts Lynn Malerba of the Mohegan Tribe.
- Hundreds of cultural objects have been returned to the Mohegan Tribe and Tantaquidgeon Museum in Uncasville, Connecticut. In 2018, Mohegan Chief Many Hearts Lynn Malerba stated: “Today with the return of these sacred objects, wholeness has been restored to our Mohegan people.”
- In 2016, a gut-skin parka from Makarka Point, Alaska, was repatriated to the Chugach Alaska Corporation. The parka will be used by the Chugach people for educational and cultural activities and will be on display in the Native Village of Eyak Cultural Center in Cordova, Alaska.
- Since NAGPRA’s enactment, the Peabody Museum has taken several other steps to meet the letter and spirit of the law, including completing inventories and summaries of Native American remains and cultural objects and submitting these to the National NAGPRA Program of the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. The Museum has published 20 Notices of Inventory Completion and 8 Notices of Intent to Repatriate in consultation with tribes.
Ongoing partnerships with tribes and tribal members through collaborations with artists at the Museum are part of the Peabody’s efforts toward sustaining relationships with descendant communities. Some of these include:
- Internationally acclaimed Native Kwakiutl artist Richard Hunt (Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw) carved his Sea Monster Mask, now in the Peabody’s collections, during a public event at the Museum in 1999. Hunt returned to Yale in 2019 for a student-curated exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery where this mask was displayed, the first campus exhibition of Indigenous art to bring together objects from the Yale University Art Gallery, the Yale Peabody Museum, and Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
- Traditional potter, and professor, Clarence Cruz (Khuu Khaayay)—Tewa from Ohkay Owingeh (formerly San Juan Pueblo)—gave a talk and demonstration at the Peabody during a visit to Yale in 2017 about his work that continues the living traditions of Pueblo pottery.
- Documentation of remains, funerary objects, and ethnographic items in consultation with the 5 federally recognized Chugach villages in Alaska.
- Determination of the cultural affiliation of ancestor remains and identification of sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony, in consultation with the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes in Oklahoma and the Arapaho Tribe of the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming.
- Documentation and photography of Plains-attributed ethnographic items to facilitate consultations with a consortium of tribes.
- Repatriation of cultural items to the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes in Alaska.
The Museum’s renovation will not affect the NAGPRA consultation or repatriation process. For direct consultation inquiries and requests for information about our collections, please contact:
All formal repatriation requests should be submitted in writing to the Office of the Director.
David Skelly, Director
Office of the Director
Yale Peabody Museum
P.O. Box 208118
New Haven, CT 06520-8118 USA