The University of Arizona

The Future of the Past: Reclassification of ‘Culturally Unidentifiable’ Human Remains Under NAGPRA

Rebecca Mountain

Abstract


The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 provided specific instructions for the documentation and repatriation of culturally affiliated Native American human remains held by museums and federal agencies. The original legislation, however, left the issue of remains classified as “culturally unidentifiable”-- those that could not be affiliated with federally recognized tribes-- untouched and in legal limbo. Many of these human remains have undergone reclassification since first inventoried, particularly since the passage of new legislation that created new guidelines for the disposition of culturally unidentifiable remains in 2010. As of early 2017, 8,217 human remains in the United States originally inventoried as “culturally unidentifiable” have been classed as culturally affiliated with a federally recognized tribe. These reclassifications call into question the utility and symbolic significance of the term “culturally unidentifiable.” The classification criteria of the deceased under NAGPRA are established by the United States government and reworked when federal rules change. Such politics over the inclusiveness of the criteria evidences Native Americans’ continuous struggle for recognition in American classification schemes—a struggle originating at European contact and continuing through the centuries including present-day issues surrounding “federal recognition” of native tribes. Establishing “cultural affiliation” criteria for the inclusion or exclusion of human remains works in symbolic, semiotic, and pragmatic domains to continue to mediate, by legal languages and practices, the control over Native American groups both living and deceased.


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