WASHINGTON (CN) - The Department of the Interior will release human remains from museums and natural history collections to Indian tribes or Native Hawaiian organizations that had a historic or prehistoric presence on the land from which the remains originally were taken. This will be true even when the remains cannot be definitively traced to the tribe or organization, according to new department rules, effective May 14.
Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, culturally unidentifiable Native American remains have been repatriated for burial or other disposition only after consultation with a Review Committee that advises the Secretary of the Interior on disposition approval. The new regulation will eliminate the review process, and the remains would be turned over to the requesting tribe or native organization after the request was announced in the Federal Register.
The act, which was passed in 1990, requires all museums and federal agencies to identify Native American cultural items in their collections, such as human remains, funerary objects, and sacred objects, to lineal descendents and culturally affiliated Indian tribes. As of Sept. 2009, museums and federal agencies have listed the remains of nearly 40,000 individuals and almost one million funerary objects on their inventories.
The most famous case of unaffiliated remains was the discovery in 1996 of the skeleton of a prehistoric man on a bank of the Columbia River in Kennewick Washington on land owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Five Indian tribes claimed ownership of the remains, which became known as Kennewick Man, and sought to dispose of the remains according to traditional burial practices without subjecting them to scientific examination.
In 2004 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected the claims of the tribes because they could not establish cultural affiliation or kinship to the remains. Later testing revealed that Kennewick Man was approximately 9,000 years old and that his DNA could not be definitively tied to any modern Native American tribes.
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