By Victoria Albanese, East Carolina University History and Philosophy Major

What is Repatriation?

In general, repatriation refers to the process by which one restores or returns a person or item back to the country of origin, allegiance, or citizenship.
This is familiar to most as the returning of a soldier’s body or belongings back to his or her homeland after war.

Archaeologists’ main objective is to find artifacts and remnants of history where ever they go, but what happens when they come across something that shouldn’t be taken from the site?
This is where repatriation becomes of use.

Many times archaeologists take from their excavations items that were at one point owned by a Native American tribe. If a present-day tribe finds that items or remains of their ancestors have been taken from the site, they may claim rights to them and request the repatriation of the items or remains.

What is the repatriation process?

For the sake of understanding, the process will be explained through an example of a Native American tribe requesting repatriation from a museum where remains or items would be held.

The first step consists of a formal request written by tribe members asking for items to be returned to the tribe. This request must be in writing using the tribe’s letterhead, and proof of lineage should be included as validation for which tribe is sending the request.

Next, detailed documentation verifies the origins of the objects taken by the museum or company. This documentation includes a crucial checklist containing:

  • A listing of skeletal remains present
  • Photographs and radiographs
  • Age and sex of each individual
  • Condition of the remains
  • Differences in bone shape
  • Modification of the bone
  • Information on diet and health from skeletal remains

After the documentation has been completed, a consultation is held during which requests for cultural objects are evaluated as to whether they fit the definitions of objects impacted by the law or covered by the museum’s right of possession.

When the consultation has satisfied both parties, the museum from which the items or remains will be returned should prepare a final comprehensive report of the repatriation. This report is considered the museum’s official response to the repatriation request.

The museum then makes recommendations for the items’ dispositions, and the report is distributed to culturally affiliated, federally recognized tribes and any other potentially affected parties once authorized.

Next is a review of the report by the requesting Native community.
Once satisfied (and depending upon the particular circumstances of the case), arrangements may be made for return following a 30-day period for public notice.

After Repatriation:

Once the items have been returned, the tribe can do with them whatever they please. For the Tuscarora, the event in March will not only commemorate the Battle at Nooherooka, but will also serve as a time for the reburial of remains discovered at the site. Details of the ceremony are very protected and classified. In the case of the Tuscarora, the date and time of the reburial is unknown, and the ceremony is normally restricted to those authorized to perform the ceremony.

Legislation Pertaining to Repatriation:

American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) – 1978

The National Museum of the American Indian Act (NMAIA) – 1989

Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) – 1990


  • “Documentation of Human Remains at the National Museum of Natural History.” N.p. Web. <>
  • Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11. New York: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2008. Print.
  • Mihesuah, Devon Abbott. Repatriation Reader, Who Owns American Indian Remains?. Bison Books, 2000. Print.
  • Fenn, Elizabeth, et al. The Way We Lived in North Carolina . United States of America: The University of North Carolina Press , 2003. Print.
  • Watkins, Joe. Sacred Sites and Repatriation. Chelsea House, 2006. Print.
  • “The Repatriation Process.” Repatriation Office. N.p.. Web. 6 Dec 2012. <>.