March 26, 2024 / Abby Roberts

NAGPRA Repatriations: A Convergence of Activism, Anthropology, and OEHS

Image Credit: Getty Images / Pabradyphoto

For several years, AIHA's Museum and Cultural Heritage Industry Working Group has sought to increase awareness of hazards in museum collections, including the toxic chemicals they may be treated with. These hazards remain associated with artifacts—and, in some cases, the physical remains of human beings—that are repatriated to lineal descendants, Native American tribes, or Native Hawaiian organizations under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (43 Code of Federal Regulations 10).

"When items and ancestors go back home, many communities will talk about this as a form of healing," said Holly Cusack-McVeigh, PhD, a professor of Native American and Indigenous studies with Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. "How can this be healing for a community when it poses a new and ongoing threat to human health and safety?"

Why Does Repatriation Matter? How Can OEHS Professionals Help?

NAGPRA was passed in 1990 after decades of advocacy by Native American activists to address a historic injustice: the removal of ancestral remains and cultural objects without the permission or consultation of affiliated communities. According to the NAGPRA Program report for fiscal year 2023 (PDF), the remains of more than 96,000 people are still held by institutions covered under the program, which must return ancestors and cultural objects to any culturally affiliated community that claims them. (The Smithsonian Institution is not covered by NAGPRA and conducts repatriations under the 1989 National Museum of the American Indian Act.)

NAGPRA is "grounded in a fundamental understanding that all people have the right to bury and protect their dead—to care for their sacred items and their cultural patrimony following their own cultural beliefs and practices," Cusack-McVeigh said. "In the case of sacred objects, these are items that should never have been accessible to any of us outside the community."

Cusack-McVeigh, a member of AIHA's museum working group, became involved with repatriation as an anthropologist working with and for indigenous communities worldwide. She teamed up with environmental health and safety specialist Brandy Howard, PE, CIH, CSP, who works with traditional occupational and environmental health and safety issues such as asbestos, lead, mold, and rodent infestation remediation. Howard's work on collections held by the National Park Service led to her joining the museum working group and put her in contact with Cusack-McVeigh.

In 2019, Howard attended a presentation hosted by AIHA's Rocky Mountain Local Section, during which textile conservator Paulette Reading spoke on x-ray florescence (XRF) testing for contaminated materials. Afterwards, Howard and Reading tested museum dusts in textile collections throughout Colorado museums as part of grant funded research. "As we were presenting on those findings, we found a possible application of this dust testing process for tribes trying to understand whether or not collections they've received back contained heavy metal contamination," Howard said.

Consultation with Community Members

For Native American communities, potential contamination of ancestral remains and cultural objects makes the already culturally and emotionally complicated repatriation process even more difficult. "There's often a sense, among indigenous groups, that bringing the ancestors home after they've been ripped from their graves and treated like study specimens is dangerous," Cusack-McVeigh explained. "Culturally, it's dangerous if things aren't done the right way—if cultural protocols aren't followed. But in addition, indigenous community members express growing concern that the ancestors and their belongings are also dangerous because of these introduced chemical treatment hazards."

The word "testing" itself invokes memories of invasive and destructive scientific tests performed without community members' consent. Some forms of chemical testing violate cultural norms regarding appropriate treatment of the deceased. Instead of telling community members what testing should be done, OEHS professionals working on repatriation cases must consult with community members to ensure that, if they wish for remains or objects to undergo chemical testing, it is carried out respectfully.

"A lot of the existing testing methods can be destructive, so what we've been focusing on is indirect testing methods," Howard said. XRF testing, for example, is a non-destructive option. "We're trying to offer some outside-of-the-box ways to test for contamination so that communities can understand what they're getting. And then help them through next steps, potentially, for how they're going to address that when they want to handle objects."

"The work that Brandy and our colleague Paulette Reading have done—what they bring to the table are options for knowing more about potential contaminants," Cusack-McVeigh said. "But the decisions to test or not test are in the control of the community, not outside institutional representatives."

"We want to be partners. We want to collaborate," Howard added. "But these aren't our objects, so we want to empower communities to get the information they want."

Collaboration Among Professions

Collaboration between professions is also critical to repatriation work. For collaboration to be possible, all parties must be aware of the relevant issues and options to address them. Not all museum professionals are aware of contaminants in collections, just as many OEHS professionals don't realize how much museums and similar institutions can benefit from their expertise—and many people in both professions aren't informed of the need to work with affiliated communities.

To raise awareness of issues related to repatriating contaminated cultural heritage, members of AIHA's museum working group have reached out to the Social Concerns Committee and Workplace Health Without Borders, as well as to the American Institute of Conservation. Howard and Cusack-McVeigh will also host an educational session on repatriating contaminated cultural heritage at AIHA Connect in May. This session, titled "Addressing Contaminated Cultural Heritage," will introduce the topic of repatriation to an audience of OEHS professionals before discussing several case studies, experimental approaches to testing for contaminants, and directions for future practice.

Howard expressed hope that the presentation will help her team reach new potential collaborators, especially consulting and private practice OEHS professionals. "But everybody, I think, benefits from this knowledge and then can be advocates with their local museums," she said. She noted that the science museum local to her area was in the process of repatriating hundreds of ancestral remains.

Cusack-McVeigh agreed that the session will benefit all potential attendees because of its cross-disciplinary approach to a topic that's both a human rights and health and safety issue. Moreover, "it's an opportunity for programs training the next generation of OEHS professionals to think differently about how they do their work and where they might do this work," she said. "Most of them don't even think about the museum sector as an opportunity for employment or communities as opportunities for collaboration. We really need to start training the next generation of workers to think differently about how they can apply their knowledge and skills to make a difference in the world."

"It takes more time, and it's often frustrating because we don't speak the same language. We don't think the same way," Cusack-McVeigh said of collaborative approaches. "But where there is a willingness to collaborate across disciplines, there is the potential for tremendous growth, and I believe that's where real change can happen."

Brandy Howard and Holly Cusack-McVeigh will present Session D10, "Addressing Contaminated Cultural Heritage" on Monday, May 20, 2024, from 3:15 to 4:15 p.m. Eastern time. AIHA Connect 2024 will be held May 20–22 in person at the Greater Columbus Convention Center, Columbus, Ohio, and virtually. To learn more about the keynote sessions, view the conference agenda, or register, visit the conference website.

For more information on the OEHS dimensions of NAGPRA repatriation, see Howard and Cusack-McVeigh’s forthcoming May 2024 Synergist article, "Beyond the Walls of the Museum."

Abby Roberts

Abby Roberts is the assistant editor for The Synergist.


There are no submissions.

Add a Comment