Cultural Resources Office
The Cultural Resources Office was created in 1992 to implement the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a federal law that was passed in 1990 and established a legal obligation and process by which human remains and cultural items may be returned to U.S. Native American Tribes, Native Hawaiian Organizations, and lineal descendants.
While NAGPRA only provides a process under Federal law for addressing U.S. Native American human remains and cultural items, the Museum also evaluates and responds to requests from international communities. For more information, please contact Cultural Resources Office staff listed below.
Working Through NAGPRA
The Cultural Resources Office has initiated consultation processes and provided collections information to each of the 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States as well as numerous Native Hawaiian Organizations, state-recognized tribes, lineal descendants, and other Native groups.
Consultation is an ongoing endeavor, and the Cultural Resources office works to provide collections information, host collection reviews, research and evaluate repatriation claims, advise the Museum's loan and accession committees, write Notices of Inventory Completion and Intent to Repatriate for the Federal Register, manage repatriations, and coordinate with federal agencies on federal collections housed at the Museum.
Working with the Cultural Resources Office may include the following steps:
The Museum has provided summaries of its ethnographic and archaeological collections, with information on items that may be unassociated funerary objects, cultural patrimony, and sacred objects, to likely affiliated tribes and Native Hawaiian Organizations. NAGPRA inventories of human remains and associated funerary objects have also been completed.
Requests for information may be made by mail to Cultural Resources Office, American Museum of Natural History, 200 Central Park West, New York, New York, 10024 or by email to the Cultural Resources Office staff listed on this webpage.
The Cultural Resources Office consults with an average of 40 tribes per year.
Consultation and onsite visits offer the opportunity to review collections and identify items that may be eligible for repatriation. Some onsite collections reviews are facilitated by National Park Service grants, which are offered to defray the costs of consultations and repatriations. For more information about these grants, please see the NAGPRA Grant Opportunity webpage.
For more information or to initiate a consultation, please email the Cultural Resources Office staff.
Under NAGPRA, federally recognized tribes, Native Hawaiian Organizations, and lineal descendants may submit repatriation requests.
A repatriation request may be submitted by Tribal Officials or the Tribe’s authorized NAGPRA representative, on formal letterhead. The request should identify the material being requested and include evidence to support cultural affiliation and the NAGPRA category under which the material is being requested.
A member of the Cultural Resources Office will acknowledge the claim and request additional information if needed.
Repatriation claims are researched by Museum staff, in consultation with the appropriate Indian Tribe or Native Hawaiian Organizations, to assess whether the criteria for repatriation have been met.
The research considers the lines of evidence cited by NAGPRA, including geographical, kinship, biological, archaeological, anthropological, linguistic, folkloric, oral traditional, historical, or other relevant information or expert opinion.
The length of the assessment process varies depending on the amount and type of material being claimed, the available evidence, and the number of consulting parties.
An internal Museum committee reviews the repatriation claim research and makes a recommendation to the Provost for Science. When the criteria for repatriation has been met, the claimant is notified of the decision, and a Notice of Inventory Completion or Intent to Repatriate is published in the Federal Register. Repatriation can take place 30 days after the publication of a Notice if no other claimant comes forward.
2021 Repatriation to Tohono O'odham Nation
In August 2021, the Museum welcomed five representatives from the Tohono O'odham Nation to complete the repatriation of more than 120 items, including ceremonial regalia, from the Division of Anthropology's ethnographic collection. The Tohono O'odham Nation's Cultural Affairs Specialist Samuel Fayuant describes the process, which began with consultations in 2019, in this video.
[Members of a delegation from the Tohono O’odham Nation carry an artifact wrapped in plastic from a crate to a table inside the Museum’s Anthropology collections space.]
OFF-SCREEN VOICE: [Speaks Native language]
Eagle? You think those are eagle feathers?
[Delegation members remove a large feathered headdress from the plastic wrapping and lay it on a table with other pieces.]
[SAMUEL FAYUANT speaks to camera from the Museum's Anthropology wing:]
SAMUEL FAYUANT (Tohono O’Odham Nation Cultural Affairs Specialist): Spiritually, you know, we think when we bring the artifacts back, we're bringing the person back home.
[Delegation members compare an old black-and-white photograph of a person wearing a costume with the costume pieces laid out on the table]
FAYUANT: It's very touching, you know, because for us having a person put on the costume, that becomes the person.
[Fayuant speaks to camera:]
FAYUANT: My name is Samuel Fayuant. I'm a member of Tohono O’odham nation in southern Arizona.
[Montage of Fayuant discussing various artifacts with the other delegation members.]
FAYUANT: I currently work for the Cultural Affairs Tribal Historic Preservation Office. And it has given me the opportunity to come into New York and start working on repatriation of our sacred items at the American Museum Natural History, New York.
[SUBDUED XYLOPHONE MUSIC]
[The Museum’s logo unfurls over footage of the Museum’s Anthropology collections storage. First, a long hallway with tall wood and glass cabinets. Then, a room full of storage compactors with some artifacts laid out on a table]
NELL MURPHY (DIRECTOR OF CULTURAL RESOURCES): The Division of Anthropology houses an extensive collection of ethnographic material from all over the country.
[A closed wooden office door bears the words “Cultural Resources Office” with two nameplates beneath: one reads “Nell Murphy” and the other “Kathryn Sabella.”]
[Nell Murphy types at a computer in her office.]
MURPHY: The Cultural Resources Office oversees all repatriation activities for the American Museum of Natural History.
[Murphy speaks to camera at a table in the Cultural Resources Office.]
MURPHY: Generally speaking, repatriation is returning something or someone to its country or community of origin.
[A close-up of an official congressional document appears, highlighted text reads “Chapter 32–Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation.”]
MURPHY: NAGPRA is the acronym for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
[A second page of the official document with details about NAGPRA scrolls onscreen.]
MURPHY: And this was federal legislation passed in 1990 that provides a process by which human remains and cultural items can be repatriated or returned…
[A map of the United States titled “Indian Lands of Federally Recognized Tribes of the United States” appears onscreen.]
MURPHY: …to federally recognized tribes, Native Hawaiian organizations, and lineal descendants.
[The map zooms in to southernmost central Arizona, where the Tohono O’odham Nation reservation is highlighted.]
MURPHY: In any given year, we can consult with 30 to 100 Tribes. Like the Tohono O’odham.
[Close-up of Murphy’s hand moving a computer mouse. With a CLICK, we now see the Museum’s online Anthropology Collections Database webpage. A mouse scrolls through a list of woven baskets from the Tohono O’odham culture.]
MURPHY: Repatriation always starts with the exchange of information, because communities need to know what a museum has before it can make any decisions on repatriation.
[The scrolling stops on a particular basket and the mouse moves to hover over text reading “Share Object.” With a CLICK, we see Murphy at her computer again, scrolling through a document.]
MURPHY: And then Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations can submit repatriation requests at their discretion.
[Fayuant and the other delegation members examine the feathers of the large headdress in the collections storage space.]
FAYUANT: When I first got involved with the repatriation, my boss gave me a copy of a book called New Trails in Mexico by Carl Lumholtz.
[A copy of New Trails in Mexico is laid out on a table, followed by a closeup of Carl Lumholtz’s name on the cover.]
[Historic photographs of Carl Lumholtz riding a horse and examining a large man-made structure.]
KATHRYN SABELLA (Repatriation Specialist and Research Assistant for North American Ethnology): Carl Lumholtz was a Norwegian explorer and naturalist, and he conducted several expeditions throughout the American Southwest and northern Mexico.
[Black-and-white photos of Tohono O’odham people taken on Lumholtz’s expedition cycle onscreen: two girls in dresses playing a game, a woman carrying a pile of sticks towards a wooden structure, a man posing for the camera from a front and side angle.]
SABELLA: And he conducted some time among Tohono O’odham people in 1909 and 1910.
[Kathryn Sabella speaks to camera from a table in the Cultural Resources Office. On the table in front of her is a copy of New Trails in Mexico as well as Carl Lumholtz’s original field notebook from his 1909-1910 expedition.]
SABELLA: He collected hundreds of items from them, and he recorded much of that detail in his field notebook that we have here, as well as his subsequent publication.
[More photographs of Tohono O’odham people cycle onscreen: A man using an agricultural tool on the desert ground, a woman carrying a large bowl with a mountain range visible behind her, two smiling young women sit on the ground with woven baskets in front of them, a man pours water into a barrel in a rocky desert landscape with two donkeys next to him.]
SABELLA: And many of the items in the Tohono O’odham claim can be traced to Carl Lumholtz, and so the information that we have about his time among them is essential.
[An archival black-and-white photograph of Carl Lumholtz talking to a young boy standing next to a donkey, followed by one of Lumhotlz riding a horse in the distance among cactuses.]
FAYUANT: Everybody thought since he is Norwegian that he took everything back to a museum in Norway. I started talking to a friend of mine who's an archaeologist.
[Pan across the table in the Anthropology collections space laid out with artifacts to be repatriated, ending with the large feathered headdress.]
FAYUANT: He said, you know I saw those Lumholtz artifacts and they're at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
[A simplified map of Arizona appears onscreen. An area in south-central Arizona along the US-Mexico border turns red and is labeled as “Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation”]
MURPHY: In 2018, the Tohono O’odham Nation Repatriation Office submitted a request for a list of all Papago ethnographic material.
[A closeup of a historic map created by Carl Lumholtz reads “Map Showing Papago Rancherias Present and Past”]
MURPHY: Papago is an outdated term for the Tohono O’odham…
[A photograph from New Trails in Mexico is labeled “Papago women bringing in wood, La Nariz”]
MURPHY: …but it’s a term that’s commonly used in museum records…
[Illustrations of ethnographic items printed in New Trails in Mexico are labeled “Papago Ethnology”]
MURPHY: …because that’s the name it had at the time it was acquired.
[We linger on a page of illustrations that features four masks with a distinctive dark band across the eyes.]
FAYUANT: Out of the items that Lumholtz bought from the O’odham, we identified 107 items that were associated with the Vikita ceremony.
[The page of illustrations fades away to reveal a black-and-white photograph of a ceremonial procession with some participants wearing masks like those seen in the previous illustration. Other participants wear large feathered headdresses like the one the delegation had been examining in the Museum’s anthropology collections.]
SABELLA: Much of what we understand about the Vikita ceremony came from our consultations with Samuel and members of the Tohono O’odham community. We understand that it was called the Great Harvest Festival as well as the Prayer Stick Festival, and it happened around once every four years to bring the rain necessary for a successful harvest, and to ensure order in the world.
[A different black-and-white photograph shows many onlookers gathered in a desert landscape to observe the Vikita ceremony.]
FAYUANT: It was a big ceremony. And people came from miles away to witness the ceremony or participate in the ceremony.
SABELLA: The main players seem to be these singers who wore gourd masks that were painted.
[A line drawing of a Vikita participant wearing a mask with the dark band across the eyes is juxtaposed with a photograph of one such mask from the Museum’s anthropological collection.]
SABELLA: And clowns who wore these wonderful feathered headdresses.
[A line drawing of a Vikita participant wearing a large feathered headdress as part of a ceremonial outfit is juxtaposed with a photograph of the feathered headdress seen earlier in the video.]
FAYUANT: The clowns, or the Nowichu…
[A black-and-white historic photograph of two Nowichu clowns appears next to the drawing of the Vikita participant. They are clearly wearing the same outfits and headdresses seen in the illustration.]
FAYUANT: …they kind of amused the group of people that were there to observe the ceremony. But they also were considered healers.
[A black-and-white photograph shows a group of people following a procession of Nowichu in front of a wooden structure in a desert landscape.]
FAYUANT: A lot of people that had some sickness knew that they could go to the ceremony…
[A close-up of the photograph of the two Nowichu in their feathered headdresses.]
FAYUANT: …and the Nowichu could conduct blessing ceremonies for them to make them well. There's one individual in Lumholtz’s book…
[We slowly zoom in on a different black-and-white photograph of a person in a Nowichu outfit posing for the camera, holding a bow and arrow and a long stick.]
FAYUANT: …his name is Simon and we have almost his complete outfit. So Simon is the one that sold all these items to Lumholtz.
[A pair of hands opens a copy of New Trails in Mexico to a page featuring the same photograph of Simon we have just seen, as well as a photograph of the back of Simon’s outfit.]
FAYUANT: But I think that in the process he was telling him what the ceremony was and so forth.
SABELLA: When we were looking at photographs of Simon, we were doing a visual comparison between what we saw in that photo and the items that we have in collections, trying to make a match.
[Next to the photograph of Simon, catalog entries from the Museum’s Anthropology Database that correspond to specific pieces of Simon’s outfit seen in the photograph appear onscreen: the feathered headdress, an arrow, sandals, a quiver for the arrows, a belt, ankle rattles.]
SABELLA: And then we went into our archives and we saw Carl Lumholtz’s field notebook…
[Sabella opens Carl Lumholtz’s original field notebook. A close up of a page in the notebook with the word “Simon” visible in Lumholtz’s handwriting.]
SABELLA: …in which he had indicated which items specifically came from Simon.
[Close up of the feathered headdress with many types of feathers visible.]
SABELLA: There are turkey feathers, hawk feathers, all different kinds of birds reflected in these pieces. I was really amazed by the cocoon rattles that were used for the ankle and wrist pieces.
[Photographs showing examples of ankle rattles made from pieces of cloth with moth cocoons attached appear onscreen.]
SABELLA: Little cocoons that were sewn by moths and then filled with pebbles in order to make a rattling noise.
[Fayuant and other members of the delegation examine a piece of Simon’s outfit made of feathers attached by string and discuss it in the O’odham language.]
[Sabella and the delegation examine Simon’s headdress and compare it with the Anthropology collections records.]
FAYUANT: The 107 items are associated with the Vikita ceremony, those are the ones that we sent out a formal request–repatriation request.
[Fayuant and Murphy converse in front of the delegation and Sabella. Fayuant laughs at something Murphy says.]
FAYUANT: And working with Nell, that one went through their review committee here and they approved it.
[The delegation carefully returns pieces of Simon’s outfit to its plastic wrapping and ties a bundle.]
FAYUANT: So that's 107 items that we're going to take back.
[Montage of Samuel discussing pieces of Simon’s outfit with the delegation members.]
FAYUANT: The new guys that came in with me–new men that came with me–today to box up the artifacts, they were really, you know, amazed at seeing them first-hand.
FAYUANT (SPEAKING TO THE DELEGATION ON-SCREEN): So, even just collecting the feathers, it took a long process to do that, to collect all the feathers and then even putting them together.
[We again see the simplified map of Arizona with the Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation in red, but now the reservation is divided into eleven districts, with one labeled “Gu Achi (Santa Rosa)” in the largest font near the center.]
FAYUANT (INTERVIEW VOICEOVER): The last time that the ceremony took place in the community of Santa Rosa or Gu Achi District was back in 1945. And unfortunately, you know, the ceremony went away.
[Pan across a wide-shot photograph of the expansive desert landscape of Santa Rosa today.]
FAYUANT: The elders that knew the songs, knew how the ceremony was conducted, they’re all gone now.
[Montage of delegation members other than Samuel looking closely at pieces of Simon’s outfit.]
FAYUANT: And so right now, even talking with some of the younger people, they probably don't have a clue as to what the ceremony was about or what it even looked like.
[The delegation and Museum staff roll sealed crates holding Simon’s outfit and other repatriated pieces into an elevator.]
FAYUANT: So I think bringing everything back, that’s going to give them a opportunity.
Back in the day, the museums, when they hired people to go out and they dug up sites on our reservation and so forth. And unfortunately there was a sad history about it.
[The delegation and Museum staff roll the crates through the Museum’s Halls of Saurichian and Ornithischian Dinosaurs, walking past T. rex, Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, and the Duck-Billed Dinosaurs Corythosaurus and Anatotian.]
FAYUANT: But nowadays they now have respect for our ancient villages, our cultural sites, our remains, and so forth. And they have more understanding, and that type of mentality is in the past now.
[Murphy is visible as the crew pushes the carts through the Museum’s Hall of Small Mammals]
MURPHY: Repatriation is very powerful. You could see how important it was for these items to go back to Arizona. Working with the Tohono O’odham was just a great pleasure. And so we were very pleased to be a part of that.
[The crew rolls the crates into the Museum’s parking garage, and with the help of professional art handlers and a forklift, begins to load them into a U-Haul van.]
FAYUANT: A lot of people say that since these artifacts or these sacred artifacts are in museums, maybe that's why we're having a lot of disruptions around the villages or the Tribe. That's why we're not healthy and so forth. So to bring the items back, it helps us out. Gives us that little bit of healing from all these negative things going around us. So I think that way, you know, it'll help us out in the long run too.
[Fayuant and the delegation members pose for a photograph in front of the loaded van, then clap and shake hands as CREDITS begin.]
Nell Murphy, Director of Cultural Resources
Contact: [email protected]
Kathryn Sabella, Senior Repatriation Specialist
Contact: [email protected]
The ethnographic and archaeological collections of the Division of Anthropology include 340,500 archaeological artifacts and 168,700 ethnological artifacts from all over the world, including 160,655 archaeological artifacts from the U.S. and 31,855 ethnological artifacts from the U.S.
Anthropology collections were formed from varied sources and through different histories of collecting.
These include fieldwork but also purchases from professional collectors and dealers, exchanges with other museums, and donations. Accepted Museum donations were originally acquired from both professional and amateur anthropologists, as well as individuals and entities. Some were collected during travel or obtained through inheritance, while others were inadvertent discoveries found during excavation for construction.
As a result of these different historical contexts and histories, the amount of documentation for each item in the Museum's collections varies greatly. Some material was collected in ways that raise complicated ethical questions, including in ways that are not considered ethical today.
NAGPRA provides a framework for museums to work with federally recognized tribes in the United States as well as Native Hawaiian Organizations, state-recognized tribes, lineal descendants, and other Native groups, to identify funerary objects, cultural patrimony, and sacred items in their collections for repatriation.
Like most natural history museums that were established in the mid-19th century or earlier, the American Museum of Natural History, which was founded in 1869, has human remains in its collection.
The Museum recognizes that many of these individuals are ancestral to modern-day communities and works with a broad range of individuals and organizations, including Native American Tribes, Native Hawaiian Organizations, foreign nations, other museums, genealogical descendants, descendant communities, and researchers to identify human remains for repatriation both in the United States and internationally.
As of July 28, 2022, the Cultural Resources Office has published 66 Notices of Inventory Completion that describe more than 2,000 sets of human remains and more than 3,000 associated funerary objects; and 27 Notices of Intent to Repatriate that describe more than 500 unassociated funerary objects and more than 150 sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony. Forty-seven (47) repatriations have been completed, resulting in the transfer of more than 970 sets of Native American human remains, and 2,280 cultural items.
- Human remains.
- Human remains and associated objects.
- Human remains.
- Cultural patrimony.
Since 1993, the Museum has completed international repatriations, resulting in the transfer of more than 200 sets of human remains to their Nations and countries of origin: Canada, Greenland, Mexico, and New Zealand.
- Human remains.
- Human remains and associated funerary objects.
- Human remains and associated funerary objects.
- Human remains and associated funerary objects.
- Human remains.