SAA Celebrates 30 Years of NAGPRA

Begins Revision of Statement on the Treatment of Human Remains

Nov 09, 2020

Thirty years ago, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) transformed our field by laying crucial groundwork for a more ethical approach to archaeology. As part of our obligation to continue to improve the ethical practice of archaeology, the SAA is preparing to update our Statement on the Treatment of Human Remains and is soliciting member input in this process. 

SAA President Joe Watkins released the following letter to membership concerning NAGPRA and the Statement drafting process.

November 16 will mark the anniversary of a pivotal moment in American archaeology—the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). NAGPRA is a landmark human rights law that formally acknowledges tribal sovereignty. It establishes a legal framework for Tribes to repatriate their ancestors and a pathway to repatriate their culture. Its passage transformed the practice of archaeology in the field, labs, research institutions, and museums.  

On the 30th anniversary of NAGPRA, the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) would like to thank the tribal leaders who initiated the efforts for this legislation, the legislators who responded, and all those involved in its passage. It would also like to recognize the efforts of all tribal representatives, archaeologists, and other professionals who worked tirelessly over the years to successfully implement NAGPRA and its regulations. 
The SAA was one of the organizations involved in drafting this groundbreaking legislation as part of a coalition of diverse groups that supported NAGPRA’s passage and signing. In 1990, the SAA began its testimony on NAGPRA by stating, “We are not here to defend the status quo,” thus recognizing that archaeology is a dynamic discipline in which standards for archaeological practice continue to evolve. Today, the SAA's membership holds a diversity of opinions on specific aspects of NAGPRA, but there is widespread agreement on the need for respect, consultation, and adherence to the law. 
NAGPRA and repatriation are one means to address the inequities, injustices, and lack of respect for tribal sovereignty that are all part of the colonial legacy of our discipline. Archaeologists working in the United States should recognize our collective obligation to correct past wrongs and actively engage in a dialogue to create new standards to mitigate the harm. Thirty years of NAGPRA have demonstrated that it isn’t just the return of cultural items and ancestral remains that is important; the building of relationships is also critical because they provide the path forward to a more ethical practice of archaeology. We, as archaeologists, should not see NAGPRA as a hindrance, but as an opportunity for collaboration.
Today, the SAA reiterates its support for NAGPRA. The SAA urges its members to uphold NAGPRA and its regulations and to use the principles embedded within NAGPRA—tribal sovereignty, the relevance and importance of traditional knowledge, and the obligation to engage with descendant communities—as critical building blocks in pursuit of a more ethical archaeology.
As one step in pursuing that more ethical archaeology, the SAA Board and I have tasked the Committee on Native American Relations (CNAR) and Committee on Repatriation (Repat) with rewriting the 1986 SAA Statement on the Treatment of Human Remains. The committees have worked closely to create a fair, transparent process with the goal of producing a draft statement for the board’s consideration at the April 2021 Annual Meeting. 

Both CNAR and Repat are reaching out to the relevant SAA committees, task forces, and interest groups for their expertise and suggestions. In order to include as many voices within the SAA as possible, the SAA invites all members to provide their comments, experiences, and resources to help in drafting the new statement. Please submit your contributions via email to This mailbox will be monitored by the CNAR and Repat committee chairs and comments will be kept anonymous. Updates will be provided in the January and March 2021 issues of The SAA Archaeological Record.