ETHICS of the NATIVE SKELETON: Reception and Internalization of NAGPRA in Academia

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The Ohio State University

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The skeletal remains and cultural materials of indigenous people have for centuries been displaced from their burials by accidental discoveries and intentional excavations. In many instances, individuals have been disinterred without tribal permission and historically became the subject of study, exhibition, and curation. Institutions – including universities – still curate or receive these remains and materials, and anthropologists are responsible for their preservation. It has been essential for the professionals involved in such circumstances to be aware of legislation, such as the United States’ “Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act” (colloquially known as NAGPRA), which dictates the appropriate treatment of these remains. Repatriation legislature like NAGPRA was developed through the collaboration of native rights activists, scientists, and academics who curate these materials, with such laws functioning as a structured compromise between these communities. It has become necessary to identify complications in educating experts who are responsible for implementing NAGPRA and similar laws. This thesis was motivated by the potential of NAGPRA and repatriation in a university context, where training begins. As a current law, NAGPRA served as an example of well-known, successfully integrated academic protocol for accomplishing the repatriation of Native American material. Research methods involved a digital survey of Anthropology and History faculty and students from The Ohio State University, who may be trained in NAGPRA, repatriation, or Native American cultural studies. Figures were supplemented with interviews of faculty members who have interacted or complied with NAGPRA in their professional careers, providing qualitative understanding to corroborate quantitative figures. All questions were designed to identify 1) cohorts and demographics, 2) personal attitudes, interpretations, and reception, and 3) awareness of the law. Through respondent data, this research visualized how personal understanding or experience may affect NAGPRA training and how such comprehension may affect compliance or repatriation trends in an occupational space. Based on cohort trends and testimony, the project indicated no conclusive division between current generations of academic anthropologists in terms of reception or interpretation of NAGPRA and repatriation. Trends and testimony did demonstrate the limitations of ethical training among academic anthropologists. The interpretation of this data was used to project how repatriation and NAGPRA compliance will continue to be enacted by academic professionals if programs emphasize their training in ethics and inclusion of indigenous perspectives.



NAGPRA, Skeletal remains, Repatriation, Anthropology, Bioarchaeology, Archaeology