Politics of Repatriation: Formalizing Indigenous Cultural Property Rights

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Virginia Tech


This project will be an empirical study into repatriation as a political practice. This theoretically-oriented project investigates how institutions and cultural values mediate changes in the governance of repatriation policy, specifically its formalization and rescaling in the United States. I propose a critical approach to understanding repatriation; specifically, I will draw together issues surrounding museums, repatriation claims, and indigenous communities throughout the development of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990 and current repatriation policy. The interdisciplinary academic narrative I build will explore practices of repatriation and how it relates to the subject of indigenous cultural rights.

Using the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia, PA and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, IL as models for the repatriation process, I will show the historic political tensions and later attempts to repatriate culturally significant objects and human remains in the United States. By examining entrenched discourses prior to NAGPRA and what changed to allow a new dominant discourse in the debates over repatriation claims, I will show that culturally-structured views on repatriation and narratives surrounding indigenous cultural property were transformed.

By examining ownership paradigms and analyzing discourses and institutional power structures, it is possible to understand the ramifications of formalizing repatriation. The current binary of cultural property nationalism/cultural property internationalism in relation to cultural property ownership claims does not represent the full scope of the conflict for indigenous people. Inclusion of a cultural property indigenism component into the established ownership paradigm will more fully represent indigenous concerns for cultural property. Looking at the rules, norms and strategies of national and international laws and museum institutions, I will also argue that there are consequences to repatriation claims that go beyond possession of property and a formalized process (or a semi- formalized international approach) can aid in addressing indigenous rights.

I will also ask the question, does this change in discourse develop in other countries with similar settler colonial pasts and indigenous communities, i.e. in Canada, New Zealand, Australia? My work will demonstrate that it does. Essentially, the repatriation conversation does not immediately change in one country and then domino to others. Instead, it is a change that is happening concurrently, comparative to other civil rights movements and national dialogues. The cultural and institutional shifts demanding change appear to have some universal momentum. The literatures to which this research will contribute include: museum studies, institutional practices, material cultural and public humanities, and indigenous right.



Repatriation, NAGPRA, cultural property indigenism, institutions