The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 requires federally funded institutions to return human remains, sacred objects, and articles from native graves to their original owners. It makes the sale of illegally obtained burial items a federal crime and allows federally recognized tribes to seek the return of objects which form part of the tribe's "cultural patrimony." Institutions that possess such materials had until 1995 to inventory them, identify the owners, and offer to return the objects.
NAGPRA was a federal response to the activism of Native Americans against laws such as the Antiquities Act of 1906 that treated the contents of native graves found on federal land as government property. Until NAGPRA, Native American bodily remains and other sacred items were officially regarded as archaeological resources available for disinterment and scientific study. The Museum established a Cultural Resources Office to address NAGPRA. Actively engaged in repatriation, it has been intensively consulting with Native American communities to resolve outstanding questions.
The Hiawatha Belt, housed in the Library of Congress, commemorates the alliance of the Iroquois Confederacy—the Haudenosaunee, or the people of the longhouse. The Confederacy unites six tribes in upper New York State and southeastern Canada: the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and, since 1722, the Tuscarora. The belt dates to around 1450 and represents the Great Law of Peace—the Iroquois constitution—drawn up by the five original members.
Iroquois storytellers recall the long and complex history of the Confederacy by reading the Hiawatha Belt. This wampum belt shows the Confederacy as one longhouse in which each nation is represented by a rectangle or by the central Tree of Peace.
Many people argue that the sophisticated, egalitarian political structure of the Confederacy was a key influence on the framers of the U.S. Constitution. The colonists had intensive interaction with the Iroquois and found in their cohesive and consensual government a model for the new federal state.