Digital Humanities
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NAGPRA, Cultural Heritage, and Twenty-One Years of Repatriation


In the paper she presented at the 2009 Proceedings of the Libraries in the Digital Age conference, Digital Cultural Heritage: Concepts, Projects, and Emerging Constructions of Heritage, Marija Dalbello touches on the role of both digital and physical cultural heritage in collective memory formation. She explains that “eliciting and recording public conversation about heritage today raises new questions about transmission of social memory”, going on to state that her research “examines a heritage practice by which memory institutions extend their role as repositories to becoming participants in a broader discourse about heritage with the consuming public” (Dalbello, 2009). While Dalbello’s work deals specifically with the phenomenon of digital cultural heritage, I believe her theory regarding the expanded role of memory institutions in public discourses of heritage can be applied to physical cultural heritage broadly, and repatriation practices in particular. The boom in repatriation legislation in the late 20th century represents a new form of dialogue between memory institutions and the publics they serve, one that highlights issues of ownership, authority, and record keeping. I attempted to shed light on this phenomenon by mapping out the recorded history of object repatriation through NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, with the hope of elucidating temporal and geographic trends in repatriation requests and concessions.


Repatriation, or the return of culturally significant objects from institutions to their communities of origin, is deeply tied to the issues of social memory transmission and open dialogue about heritage and ownership that Dalbello references in her presentation. As the concept of museums as democratic institutions has gained wider acceptance, so, too, has the recognition of the necessity of respecting repatriation requests put forth by Indigenous American communities. On November 16, 1990 Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which provides a framework for museums and federal agencies to handle repatriation requests for human remains, funerary and sacred objects, and other items of cultural significance from lineal descendants or culturally affiliated Native groups (National Park Service, National NAGPRA). Prior to the passing of this act, object repatriation at museums, cultural heritage institutions, and federal agencies was handled on a case-by-case basis, with no real guiding legislation. NAGPRA helped to provide a structured system through which institutions could determine whether or not the repatriation of a given object or set of objects was in the best interests of the repository, the community, and the items themselves. Importantly, NAGPRA only legislates the repatriation of cultural heritage objects belonging to American Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native tribes and communities held by museums and federal agencies outside of national museums. The repatriation of objects held by the Smithsonian Institutions is guided by the National Museum of the American Indian Act Amendment of 1996, and the return of cultural heritage objects to other countries is dictated by a completely different set of government agencies.

When an institution agrees to repatriate a set of items, they must file a Notice of Intent to Repatriate with the National Park Service, through NAGPRA. These filings are available to the public, from 1995 to November 2016, through the NAGPRA Notices of Intent to Repatriate Database. I downloaded this dataset, which is comprised of over 700 unique Intent to Repatriate filings at more than 240 institutions around the country, with the hope of creating an interactive map of repatriations over the last 21 years. I utilized a number of different methods and tools during this process.


The dataset that I downloaded from NAGPRA required quite a bit of cleaning, almost all of which was done through OpenRefine. I was also forced to manually search for the addresses of all of the institutions in the database, and then to manually locate the latitude and longitude coordinates for each site. Once I had supplemented my spreadsheet with all of this information, I uploaded the dataset to both Tableau Public and Carto. Initially, I had assumed that Carto would be the most appropriate program for this task, since it is a mapping software. I created numerous iterations of the map through Carto, none of which I felt were particularly useful or accurate.

The first map that I created through Carto utilized the program’s layer filters. I intended to create 21 filters, one for each year of the data, which users could then click through to gain a deeper understanding of repatriation over the years. However, I quickly realized that Carto would not allow me to create more than seven layers per map. This forced me to break the information down into four unique maps and to spread the data across them evenly in five or six year increments. I found this to be extremely challenging to use, and noticed that having to switch between four different maps disrupted the viewer’s sense of continuity across the 21 years of data.

Next, I attempted to create a map using the “Time Series” widget in Carto, which allowed me to animate the 21 years of repatriation data. I had hoped that this animation would help to highlight the temporal aspect of the data, and perhaps would make the long term trends in cultural heritage repatriation clearer. However, the speed at which the data was displayed, even at the slowest setting, made it nearly impossible for the viewer to glean anything from the results. I was unable to spot any trends in either location or time period from this animated map, largely due to that fact that the points appeared and disappeared so quickly. I felt that a static image would be the strongest representation of this information, allowing users to spend as much time as needed to really see patterns and trends in the data.

My third and final approach to visualizing this data was through Tableau Public. Despite the fact that Carto is a mapping program and Tableau is generally stronger in other types of visualization, I found Tableau to be far more effective for this dataset. I created a filter for each year of data, which allowed users to select all years, a portion, or even one single year, and to examine the results at their leisure. I scaled the plot points to reflect the number of repatriation filings per institution for any given year(s). The points automatically resize themselves based upon the data available for the years that the user has selected.

NAGPRA Repatriation Filings


Along with this map, I created a line graph for the same dataset. While the “year” filters in the map allow users to interact with the data and to gain deeper insights into the temporal nature of NAGPRA repatriation filings, this visualization is not especially strong at conveying changes in repatriation filings over the years. The line graph allows users to instantly understand patterns in NAGPRA Intent to Repatriate filings over the past 21 years, which is made especially clear by the addition of a trend line.


I believe that these two visualizations complement each other quite well, where one clearly elucidates the temporal aspect of the data and the other the geographic nature.

Results & Future Directions

A number of things become instantly apparent by visualizing this data. Through the Tableau map, one is able to see geographic patterns of repatriation, noting that southern New England, the Great Lakes region, and the Southwest were the first areas where Notices of Intent to Repatriate were being filed with NAGPRA. One can also see that it was not until 2001, ten years after the passing of the NAGPRA legislation, that institutions in the Pacific Northwest really begin active repatriation filing. Mapping this data also helps users to quickly identify which institutions have filed the largest number of Notices of Intent to Repatriate with NAGPRA. The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University has filed 47 Notices with NAGPRA over the past 21 years, more than twice as many as the second most active institutions, the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, each with 22 filings. This prompts questions about the cause of the significant activity witnessed at the Peabody Museum. What are the acquisition protocols of this institution? Does the Peabody have a larger collection of culturally significant American Indian objects than other institutions, or are the tribal communities in this region simply more active in their attempts to repatriate their cultural heritage?

The line graph, too, helps to elucidate trends in the 21 year history of repatriation filings through NAGPRA. Upon viewing the line graph, it became immediately apparent that something unique happened in 2008, which saw a peak of 55 filings, close to 25 more filings than in either 2007 or 2009. I immediately had questions about legislation that may have caused this peak in NAGPRA filings. There was a presidential election in 2008, though one would assume any newly enacted policies made by the incoming Obama administration would have taken effect in 2009, after Obama took office. It is also unclear why there has been such a decline in repatriation filings over the past three years. While the data for 2016 only runs through the end of November, it seems likely that this year’s filings will be similar to the low numbers seen in 2014 and 2015. A greater review of state and federal policies, as well as institutional policies relating to the handling of repatriation requests, would be necessary to help make sense of this data.

There are many ways that I would love to supplement these visualizations in the future. As mentioned earlier in this paper, this dataset only contains information on Notices of Intent to Repatriate that have been filed through NAGPRA, meaning that they are confined to museums, federal agencies, and cultural heritage institutions outside of national museums. I would like to incorporate repatriation filing information from Smithsonian Institutions, particularly the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of Natural History. I would also love to include information on which American Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native tribes submitted the repatriation requests featured in this dataset, as well as the number of items that are included in each request. Since this data is only available in PDF format, it would be extremely challenging to collect this information without utilizing a programming language. Despite the fact that this supplemental information would improve these visualizations, I still believe that this project facilitated more meaningful engagement with NAGPRA repatriation data. It would be far more challenging to perceive these trends and patterns by simply reviewing a spreadsheet; this task is made far simpler through the visualizations displayed here.


Works Cited:

Dalbello, Marija. (2009). “Digital Cultural Heritage: Concepts Projects, and Emerging Constructions of Heritage.” Proceedings of the Libraries in the Digital Age (LIDA) Conference, 25-30 May, 2009.

National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. (n.d.) National NAGPRA. Retrieved from \


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