Repatriation of Native American Cultural Items Held Abroad


General Background - U.S. Government Officials are sometimes asked to assist Native American Communities with the repatriation from abroad of cultural items taken without the Community’s consent.  While no comprehensive data exists on the world market for Native American cultural items or foreign museum holdings, several Native American Communities have identified and pursued repatriation of items offered in auctions or held in museums outside of the United States.  In some cases, Communities have requested help from the Departments of Homeland Security, the Interior, Justice, and State.  For additional information regarding the role of the Department of the Interior in international repatriaiton efforts, please visit the Department of the Interior Office of International Affairs webpage.

Reference Guide for Federal Agencies - The Department has developed a guide for U.S. Government officials to consider when they receive a request from a Native American Community representative seeking assistance in the recovery of Native American cultural items from a foreign government, private institution (including but not limited to museums), or individual located outside of the United States.  Not every question in the guide needs to be answered for assistance to be provided.  However, the questions illustrate the type of information typically requested by foreign governments, museums, and U.S. Government agencies.  This information can also help Federal officials evaluate options for U.S. Government action in support of a request for assistance, recognizing that the tools available to Federal agencies can be constrained by the limited reach of U.S. law in foreign countries.

International Repatriation Legal Option Analysis 508 [pdf]  - We, at the U.S. Department of the Interior, in coordination with an interagency working group, which includes representatives from the Departments of State, Justice, and Homeland Security have developed a  International Repatriation Legal Option Analysis 508 [pdf]
 to assist Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations (Native American Communities) seeking to repatriate cultural items held abroad.  This draft summary of legal options responds to a recommendation in the August 2018 GAO Report discussed in the next subsection.  The summary of legislative options was the recent subject of  Nhc Leader Ltr International Repatriation Comment And Input Request 20200224 [pdf]   Based upon this consultation effort, the Department's Office of Native Hawaiian Relations published the Doi Onhr Consultatin Rpt Leg Ops Intl Repat Final 20200416 [pdf]
and submitted it to the working group on April 16, 2020.

GAO Report - In August of 2018, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) published a report to Congress entitled "Native American Cultural Property:  Additional Agency Actions Needed to Assist Tribes with Repatriating Items from Overseas Auctions".  The GAO made 12 recommendations, including implementing leading collaboration practices and assessing the U.S. legal framework governing the export, theft, and trafficking of these cultural items.

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