Museums must return Native American artifacts due to new law


The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County puts “object temporarily removed” signs in a display case of Native American jewelry. Photo by Kelsey Ngante.

Museums around the country are looking a little different this year thanks to new laws about where and with whom Native American artifacts belong.

Walk into the “Becoming Los Angeles” exhibit at the Natural History Museum of LA – the largest natural and cultural history collection in the western United States – and you’ll notice several display cases with placards reading “object temporarily removed.” In total, the museum has removed 23 cultural artifacts including jewelry and traditional tools.

The museum pulled the objects after January, when federal officials made amendments to a 1990 law called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which regulates how museums can display Native American artifacts.

The changes require museums to obtain permission from Native American tribes before displaying their cultural objects. If a Native American tribe requests the repatriation of an item, museums must adhere to a timeline-specific plan to return it. 

“For the 1990 law, [the museums were] pretty much in the driver's seat of how those designations were made,” says Joe Horse Capture, curator of Native American history and culture at the Autry Museum in Griffith Park. “With the 2024 version, Native people are in the driver's seat.”

It’s not just the Natural History Museum of LA. Since the beginning of the year, museums around the country have scrambled to adjust their exhibits in compliance with the new law. 

The American Museum of Natural History in New York closed nearly 10,000 square feet of exhibition space.

The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History covered up its “Chumash Life” exhibit space in January. 

The Bowers Museum in Orange County removed about half a dozen items from the “First Californians” exhibit. 

Sarah Brunzell, cultural resources manager for the Fernandeño-Tataviam Band of Mission Indians native to the San Fernando Valley, says the NAGPRA updates have changed the collaboration process between museums and Native peoples from a suggestion to a legal requirement.

“I think that everybody is trying to follow [the new laws],” she says. “We have gotten notifications that have been insensitive in the past. That's why consultation and the deference to tribal traditional knowledge is so imperative. Because [with] even something as simple as a formal notification without consultation, something harmful could occur like, like there being photographs of sacred objects [on display].”

Kelly Bishop, a representative for the Bowers Museum, says the new process is leading to a big picture re-evaluation of how museums approach Native American history. 

“We're also looking at this as an opportunity to reexamine past approaches, look at our whole collection, even things that aren't on view,” says Bishop.

For some museums, the new regulations are more about strengthening pre-existing relationships with Native tribes than forging new ones.

The Autry Museum is home to one of the largest collections of Native American materials in the United States. It has a designated repatriation team to return items to tribes, a $32 million preservation facility that also functions as a ritual space for California Indigenous peoples, and thousands of Native American cultural artifacts in their care.

Curator Joe Horse Capture says taking this approach as a museum is important for centering Native voices in light of the new laws.

“The old way of looking at curators, for lack of a better way of putting it, is a non-Native guy in an office with a big pile of books, and he has his little readers at the end of his glasses, you know what I mean?” he says. “That narrative is thrown out the door.”

**Correction 5/7/24: A previous version of this story stated that a canoe exhibit was removed by the Natural History Museum of LA to comply with new federal regulations. In fact, the canoe has not yet been displayed.



Kelsey Ngante