In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which recognized that all human remains “must at all times be treated with dignity and respect.” Thirty years later, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has approved a policy restricting the creation, reproduction, and publication of images of Native American cultural items and human remains.
UT’s policy is a result of discussions during consultation with tribal nations. In order to use, publish, or create images of such ancestral remains or items housed at UT, researchers must go through the appropriate tribal approval process in coordination with the UT Knoxville NAGPRA committee.
If requested, the UT NAGPRA committee will aid researchers in contacting the appropriate tribal representatives to begin the tribal approval process. Regretfully, this policy was not in place previously; however, this is to be the first step of many in ensuring that ethical, informed consent of descendant communities and tribal nations is at the forefront in research and image creation, use and publication at UT.
For centuries, Native American ancestral remains and cultural items were removed from the ground by individuals and institutions, kept in storage, used for research, and put on display, without any consideration for cultural and religious beliefs of those excavated or their descendants. NAGPRA was passed after many decades of activism and political pressure, following legislation such as the Indian Civil Rights Act (1968) and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (1978).
NAGPRA created a pathway for the return of Native American human remains, as well as funerary, sacred and patrimonial objects, to lineal descendants, federally recognized Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations.
Ellen Lofaro, UT’s director of repatriation, wrote an article for the Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology on UT’s new NAGPRA image policy.