In 2018, a committee of staff members at the Harry Ransom Center began the process of updating the Center’s deaccession policy and procedures: a standard document that most museums and archives have in their collection management protocols. One of the laws listed in the deaccession policy is The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which directs federal agencies and institutions that received federal funding to deaccession Native American cultural items and return them to descendants of affiliated Indian tribes per statutes of this Federal Act. The deaccession committee’s project to review Native American collections at the Ransom Center was further inspired following the 2019 Flair Symposium Ethical Challenges in Cultural Stewardship, which included discussions about NAGPRA in some of the panel presentations.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act  was enacted as a United States federal law in 1990. In the most basic terms, the purpose is for any institution receiving federal funds (including state, local, and private institutions) to return Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony back to their rightful descendants and tribes. Nationally, the repatriation process had an initial deadline to notify tribes of relevant objects in collections by 1995, but that work actively continues to this day , as both institutions and tribes continue to sort through the inventories, make claims, and process claims through the formal procedures outlined in the law. There is no deadline for tribes to file a claim for repatriation of objects once an object is identified and presented to NAGPRA or tribal records. In the meantime, these objects are now managed with a greater respect to Native American cultures; they are not exhibited, loaned, photographed, or generally handled without tribal consultation and consent.
One of the challenges within the Center’s oldest collections is that vital provenance information from the original collector, the estate, or the curator was sometimes not documented or misidentified in the acquisition, prior to more formalized and modern collection management practices. Especially in the case of Native American materials, which have never been a formal part of the Center’s mission or curatorial specialties (but came into the collection as part of large archives and donations), these works have often gone misidentified, unidentified, or overlooked for decades. This is certainly not a problem unique to the Ransom Center—in fact, all museums of a certain age have historic items in their collections that lack accurate or rigorous documentation. Thanks to advances in collections management, registration, and curation practices and standards, the field has immensely improved, but unfortunately, we cannot go back in time to correct the original inaccuracies and omissions. The research we conducted at the Center was an attempt to rectify the assumptions and insensitivities of our predecessors.
Part of that art market and grab of objects and ancestors from the ground came with fabricated stories of what the provenance of those items actually were in order to separate them from their original peoples, and also to create a more romantic or different story that had a more Western perspective of an interpretation than what the object truly was. And truly those objects are not objects of art, nor were they created by artists. But they were living breathing objects still being used today for tribes.
—SHANNON KELLER O’LOUGHLIN, Exec. Dir., Association on American Indian Affairs
To begin our research, Ransom Center Archivist and Collections Librarian Steve Mielke developed a search strategy and conducted an extensive review of records from multiple collections databases to find terms in descriptions that might point to materials classified as “Native American.” The Deaccession Committee, which included Associate Director for Library Division, Hobby Foundation Librarian Jim Kuhn; Associate Director for Administration and Curatorial Affairs Megan Barnard; Mielke, and myself as the Art Registrar for Loans & Exhibitions, reviewed this list, looking for any and all works that could fit the categories under NAGPRA. In case something was not originally identified as belonging to a Native American tribe, we discussed what types of items could be considered sacred or of cultural patrimony. Revised searches were done to identify records that matched more characteristics. We also asked all of our curatorial staff to review the results and to suggest any other works that may have been overlooked.
…all museums of a certain age have historic items in their collections that lack accurate or rigorous documentation. Thanks to advances in Collections Management, Registration, and Curation practice and standards, the field has immensely improved on this practice, but unfortunately, we can’t go back in time to correct the original inaccuracies and omissions. The research that we conducted at the Ransom Center was in an intent to rectify the assumptions and insensitivities of our predecessors.
For my own role in this committee, I helped to research some of the anonymous objects. My intern at the time, Chloe Giese (now Preservation Assistant in Conservation), and I paged through sources to find visually similar objects and designs that might provide hints at provenance. As we researched and slowly learned about some items, I organized the list into geographic or cultural affiliations, while Chloe helped to collect all possible Tribal contacts from official NAGPRA resources, as well as fully documenting each object.
Another path for research included the personal histories of those who originally acquired the objects to see if these provided provenance clues: Where did the collectors live and when? Where did they travel? Where and why might they have come across the objects in question? While that angle of my research did not resolve specific mysteries, it created a valuable context for the objects as we added the information to the inventories. Lacking formal provenance documentation, there was little chance of positively identifying most of the works beyond a very broad affiliation and/or geographic region. But that factor of identification at least helped us to know which tribes to send our inventories to. By casting that wide net, we hoped some tribal groups would be able to further identify items for repatriation.
Another challenge was that members of our committee had little to no direct experience with NAGPRA. After consulting professional guidance, including the Society of American Archivists’ Protocols for Native American Archival Materials, our next step was to consult with other colleagues who have experience with the law or to help us identify some of the unidentified collection items. Beyond corresponding with other museum professionals and professors, we met with Head of Collections Marybeth Tomka, and Curatorial Associate Annie Riegert from UT’s Texas Archaeological Research Laboratory; Dr. Loriene Roy, a professor from the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin who specializes in indigenous cultural heritage development, and Angie Glasker, curator from the Bullock Texas State History Museum who has a strong background working with NAGPRA grants, consultations with tribes, research, and repatriation. Wanting to be sensitive and thorough, we found these meetings to be enormously helpful to answer our many questions as we worked collaboratively to respect recommendations, protocols, and laws.
In December 2019, we submitted the final NAGPRA summaries to 75 Tribes throughout the Northeast, Mountain/Plains, Southwest, and Alaska, as well as to the NAGPRA government office. In January 2020, we were delighted to hear from the Cochiti Pueblo in New Mexico who positively identified one of the drums in the inventory as being Cochiti and an object of cultural patrimony.
Working closely with the Cochiti Pueblo contact primarily by telephone, we supported each other through the required next steps, sometimes sharing each other’s views and experiences and embarking on a meaningful new professional relationship in the process. The Pueblo submitted a formal repatriation request in March 2020, and we started the formal repatriation process. The drum will be officially repatriated as soon as possible in 2021.
The Ransom Center currently has had no other claims for the other materials in our NAGPRA list, but that does not mean we will not have any claims to honor in the future. The repatriation claim and process can take many years, and it is not always straightforward for a variety of complex reasons. In the meantime, we will strive to remain good stewards of the collection items that remain at the Center and look forward to continuing the respectful work with any tribal community who would like to file a claim or request more information.
Thank you to the Cochiti Pueblo for their contributions and collaboration.
 The official site for NAGPRA can be found online at https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nagpra/index.htm
 American Alliance of Museums, NAGPRA 20 Years and Counting. November/December 2010 https://www.aam-us.org/programs/peer-review/20-years-and-counting/
 Roy, Loriene. “Who is Indigenous?” In Callison, Camille, Loriene Roy, and Gretchen Alice LeCheminant, eds., Indigenous Notions of Ownership and Libraries, Archives and Museums (Berlin, Germany: De Gruyter Saur, 2016), 7-24.