Despite A Federal Law, Texas Tribes Struggle To Repatriate Ancestral Remains

Because Texas has no state infrastructure for recognizing native tribes, indigenous people have had difficulty negotiating for the return of remains and artifacts belonging to their people.

By Michael Marks & Shelly BrisbinNovember 24, 2020 11:33 am, ,

Thirty years ago, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, better known by the acronym NAGPRA. The intent of the law was to help indigenous people reclaim the remains and possessions of their ancestors that were held by institutions like museums and universities. The idea was well-intentioned, but the execution has been incomplete, especially in Texas.

Amal Ahmed is a reporter for the Texas Observer. She told Texas Standard that the law gives federally recognized tribes the ability to consult with museums or other entities that hold native remains, with the goal of repatriating them. But tribes recognized on the state level don’t have the same rights, which means some of them have had difficulty negotiating the release of remains. And in Texas, the issue is even more complicated. 

“In Texas, we actually don’t have a state process for recognizing tribes, and so it’s a much more obscure process,” she said.

Without either federal recognition or a state process to obtain recognition, tribes in Texas don’t have a way to force museums or universities to repatriate remains, or to negotiate with them.

“If a federally recognized tribe came to a university, they would have to start that process of talking with them and figuring out what is the best course of action,” Ahmed said.

Another challenge for tribes is the lack of historical records, or even inaccurate ones. 

Ahmed said she spoke with a member of the Tap Pilam tribe, which textbooks say is extinct and assimilated into colonial Spanish culture. But a lack of historical information makes the tribe’s status unclear and complicates negotiations for remains.

Ahmed said the Texas Legislature could help tribes make claims by passing laws that would recognize their standing, and fill in the gaps left by NAGPRA. 

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