Native American Artifacts and the Law -
Santa Fe New Mexico pottery

What information must an appraiser and clients know about American Indian prehistoric and historic items?

Knowledge of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (ARPA) is essential. This law governs the excavation of archeological sites on federal and Indian Lands in the United States, and the removal and disposition of archeological collections from those sites. No person may sell, purchase, exchange, transport, receive, or offer to sell, purchase, or exchange any archaeological resource if such resource was excavated or removed from public lands or Indian lands. (Wikipedia)

Before I enter into a contract to appraise historic pottery or other archeological items, I ask the client how they obtained these items. In many cases, the client inherited these items and has little knowledge about how their family members obtained the items. Were these items found on public, Indian or private lands? Can the client provide evidence of the identity of the items? Were the items from a digging or from caves? Were the items bought from auction houses, galleries, or individuals? Are you aware of the federal laws concerning these items?

In 2009, federal government officials arrested many people who stole pottery and other archeological items from federal and Indian lands through archeological diggings and searching caves. In a Bureau of Land Management news release, the former Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar said “Let this case serve as notice to anyone who is considering breaking these laws and trampling our nation’s cultural heritage …track you down and bring you to justice.” (ARPA & NAGPRA)

Many of these stolen items were repatriated to the original owners, often specific American Indian tribes. The law that governs repatriation is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA),a United States federal law enacted on November 16, 1990. The Act requires federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American “cultural items” to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations. Cultural items include human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony (Wikipedia).

Issues of “The American Indian Art” magazine provide insight into the NAGPRA law. Reading the Legal Briefs provides information about museums repatriating items. One that impressed me was that the Arizona State Museum, Tucson, AZ repatriated items which had been donated to the museum. The items were returned to the Hopi tribe – the original owners. The return of these items to the original owners, American Indian people, fulfilled the NAGPRA law. Be aware of these two laws as you review the provenance of your historic items in your collection. If you donated them to a museum (NAGPRA) or to Indian tribe, you are returning them to the original owner.

This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead

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