Recent NAGPRA Regulations on the Display of Native American Objects

A Message from NHMLAC President and Director, Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga

January 26, 2024

The Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County (NHMLAC) care for numerous cultural collections, many of which are affiliated to various Native American tribal communities. 

Since the enactment of the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990, our institution has engaged and consulted with tribal communities to identify cultural objects that, along with ancestral remains, should be repatriated to descendant communities. 

This is not only a legal responsibility, but an ethical one that adheres to our best practices as a cultural institution. You may have seen the news that revisions to NAGPRA went into effect on January 12 and articles about how museums around the country are responding to those changes. Included in these revisions is a requirement for museums to consult with appropriate Native American communities before displaying any cultural items, not only those items that have been identified as subject to repatriation through NAGPRA. 

In January, we deinstalled five cultural objects from the First Angelenos section of Becoming Los Angeles (BLA) at NHMLAC and 18 cultural objects were removed from the “Asphalt and People” display at La Brea Tar Pits and we will continue to comply with these regulations. 

For our institution, changes such as these might not be as drastic as at other museums across the country because we have long been engaged in meaningful consultation and partnerships with Native American communities in Southern California. In 2018, revisions to the First Angelenos section of Becoming Los Angeles were done in consultation with representatives from the Tongva community, and since then, members from the Chumash community have provided input regarding objects affiliated with their Tribe, which are on display. 

More recently, the federal government affiliated other tribes with the regions where some of the displayed cultural objects were initially excavated. It is these objects we deinstalled at NHMLAC until we can consult with these affiliated tribes. At La Brea Tar Pits, the Asphalt and People display was installed more than 20 years ago, and we understand that there was no meaningful consultation with affiliated descendant communities at that time. 

We will be engaging in conversations with these communities in the coming months. These steps not only bring us in compliance with new NAGPRA regulations; they also align our exhibition practices with our ethics. All Native American cultural objects that are in exhibits at both NHMLAC and La Brea Tar Pits are displayed with informed consent from affiliated descendant communities. I want to acknowledge the thoughtful and careful work of Museum staff in these efforts. We will post updates here about our advancements in this arena.

We undertake this work with the same care and thoughtfulness that guided us when we adopted our Ancestral Remains Policy in 2022.

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