Montgomery, AL – The Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH) took administrative steps today to begin the removal of certain Native American materials from its holdings and the repatriation of the items to federally recognized Indian tribes with historical ties to Alabama. Repatriation is a requirement of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a federal law enacted in 1990.
At a regular meeting of the agency’s Board of Trustees, board members voted to deaccession, or formally remove from the agency’s catalog of permanent collections, 37 sets of human remains and 349 associated funerary objects (items removed from the same burials as the remains) that were excavated from native burials at two sites in Montgomery and Lowndes counties in the early 1900s. After a period of public notice through the U.S. Department of the Interior, legal custody of the materials will be transferred to a tribal nation in accordance with NAGPRA.
The ADAH also announced effective today the closure of The First Alabamians, its exhibition on Native Americans from prehistory to 1700. In 2011 and 2014 the ADAH opened exhibitions in its Museum of Alabama that rely heavily on unassociated funerary objects (items removed from burials, but for which no human remains are held) to interpret Native American society. The First Alabamians contains the largest number of such funerary objects. Additional funerary materials in Alabama Voices, the museum’s centerpiece exhibition covering three centuries of Alabama history, have been removed from display. All galleries except The First Alabamians will remain open to general visitors and to school field trips.
The ADAH plans to modify the exhibitions by introducing artifacts that were not part of burials and by incorporating significant advances in the scholarly study of indigenous cultures over the past decade. Most notably, the exhibits will introduce perspectives offered by numerous tribal groups and highlight the continued vibrancy of indigenous cultures originating from Alabama. Preliminary plans call for the revised exhibits to be open by 2026.
In 2018 the ADAH determined that it was not in compliance with NAGPRA because only a portion of the reporting of collections required by the law had been completed in the 1990s. The agency promptly notified the Department of the Interior and appropriate federally recognized tribes of its findings. Four years of intensive collections-management work, with regular updates to the tribes and the federal government, made it possible for consultation with tribal officials on cultural affiliation to begin in the spring of 2022.
Deaccession and repatriation of remains and funerary objects held in the ADAH’s collections will continue over several years. At points to be determined, physical custody of repatriated materials will transfer to the claimant tribes, who will make decisions on the final disposition of the materials. Reinterment of the materials in Alabama is a possible outcome.
In committing the agency to following the letter and the spirit of the law, the Board of Trustees in May 2018 adopted a set of desired outcomes that include legal compliance with all aspects of NAGPRA, enhanced appreciation for native peoples’ perspectives on repatriation, sustained partnerships with tribes, improved understanding of the ADAH collections, enhanced resources for ongoing educational and research use, a reputation for transparent, respectful stewardship of Native American materials, and capacity to serve as a resource for other Alabama institutions with obligations under NAGPRA.
ADAH board chairman Joel Daves said the agency has met the high expectations set by the trustees, thanks to the dedicated work of its staff and a growing spirit of cooperation with tribal groups. “This is a clear example of a state agency recognizing its obligations under the law and fulfilling those with a commitment to professional ethics and regard for our indigenous neighbors,” said Daves. “The Board of Trustees is grateful to our tribal partners and looks forward to continued success in repatriation and the development of the very best museum exhibitions we can offer to Alabamians.”
According to ADAH director Steve Murray, the work toward NAGPRA compliance and new museum interpretation requires introspection and a willingness to grow in understanding. “Good public history involves generous doses of respect for the work of our predecessors, but also recognition of where we can improve our practices to reflect a similar, high level of respect for all the contributors to Alabama history,” said Murray. “Our exhibitions have long sought to strengthen public awareness of the richness of Native American culture, and they have done so successfully. Now, we recognize that the origins of most of our archaeological collections were deeply problematic and disrespectful of Alabama’s indigenous community. We can do better while maintaining our dedication to growing public awareness, and we will.”
ADAH staff will be available for media Q&A on Thursday, August 11, from 10:00 am to 11:00 am in the ADAH’s Milo B. Howard Auditorium. For more information, contact the ADAH’s Communications Coordinator, Georgia Ann Hudson, at (334) 353-3312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For additional information about the ADAH’s archaeological collections and ongoing work toward compliance with the legal requirements and ethical principles of NAGPRA, please see the below Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ).
The federally recognized tribes invited to participate in NAGPRA consultation with the ADAH all resided in Alabama at some point. They include: Absentee‐Shawnee Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma; Alabama‐Coushatta Tribe of Texas; Alabama-Quassarte Tribal Town; Cherokee Nation; Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians; Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma; Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana; Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma; Jena Band of Choctaw Indians; Kialegee Tribal Town; Miccosukee Tribe of Indians; Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians; Muscogee (Creek) Nation; Poarch Band of Creek Indians; Seminole Nation of Oklahoma; Seminole Tribe of Florida; Shawnee Tribe; and Thlopthlocco Tribal Town.
The Alabama Department of Archives and History is the state’s government-records repository, a special-collections library and research facility, and home to the Museum of Alabama, the state history museum. It is located in downtown Montgomery, directly across Washington Avenue from the State Capitol. The Museum of Alabama is open Monday through Saturday from 8:30 to 4:30. The EBSCO Research Room is open Tuesday through Saturday from 8:30 to 4:30. To learn more, visit www.archives.alabama.gov or call (334) 242-4364.
Frequently Asked Questions
ADAH Archaeological Collections and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)
What is NAGPRA?
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) is a federal law that was enacted in 1990. It provides a process for museums and federal agencies to return Native American human remains and cultural items to lineal descendants, federally recognized Native American tribes, and Native Hawaiian Organizations in a process called repatriation. More information can be found at the National Park Service Website: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nagpra/index.htm
Who must comply with NAGPRA?
All federal agencies are subject to NAGPRA. All public and private museums that have received federal funds, other than the Smithsonian Institution, are also subject to NAGPRA.
What items are subject to repatriation under NAGPRA?
An item is subject to repatriation if it can be reasonably identified as one of the following types of materials:
- Human Remains: The physical remains of the body of a person of Native American ancestry.
- Funerary Objects: Objects that, as a part of the death rite or ceremony of a culture, are reasonably believed to have been placed with individual human remains either at the time of death or later.
- Sacred Objects: Specific ceremonial objects which are needed by traditional Native American religious leaders for the practice of traditional Native American religions by their present-day adherents.
- Objects of Cultural Patrimony: Objects having ongoing historical, traditional, or cultural importance central to the Native American group or culture itself, rather than property owned by an individual Native American.
What are the scope and history of the ADAH’s archaeological collections, and which items are subject to repatriation?
The ADAH’s archaeological collections consist of more than 326,000 objects from more than 150 archaeological sites. Nearly all the materials were excavated in the first half of the twentieth century and donated to the ADAH by members of the Alabama Anthropological Society (AAS), an organization of archaeology enthusiasts that was active between 1909 and the 1940s. The goals of the AAS included researching and documenting Native American sites throughout the state and securing a collection of artifacts for exhibition and research at the ADAH. The ADAH’s first and third directors, Thomas M. Owen and Peter Brannon, were members of the AAS and facilitated the transfer of materials to the state agency, where they were the subjects of scholarly research and exhibition for generations.
The materials involved in consultation and repatriation in 2022 and 2023 represent the total amount of human remains and associated funerary objects (items removed from the same burials as the human remains) in the ADAH’s collections. These include 114 sets of human remains and approximately 4,000 funerary objects excavated from approximately 22 sites.
The remainder of the ADAH’s archaeological collections include approximately 322,000 Native American items. Fifty-seven percent of these materials are documented to be unassociated funerary objects (items removed from burials, but for which no human remains are held) and subject to repatriation in 2024 and beyond. Additional evaluation and consultation are required to determine the status of the balance of the collection.
How is tribal eligibility to claim the materials determined?
Determination of which tribal nations are eligible to claim the materials was made through consultation between the ADAH and federally recognized tribes in a process regulated by NAGPRA. When determining cultural affiliation, participants consider criteria such as geographic location, distinctive styles in material culture, and distinctive burial practices. The participants in consultation reached a consensus determination of broad cultural affiliation including multiple tribes. On behalf of the multiple tribes making a joint claim, a single tribe will serve as lead claimant in response to a notice of inventory completion to be published by the ADAH in the Federal Register.
How will the Museum of Alabama’s exhibits be affected by repatriation?
In 2011 and 2014 the ADAH opened permanent exhibitions in its Museum of Alabama that rely heavily on unassociated funerary objects (items removed from burials, but for which no human remains are held) to interpret the development of Native American society. On August 10, 2022, the ADAH announced the closing of The First Alabamians, its exhibition on Native Americans from prehistory to 1700. The First Alabamians contains the largest number of Native American artifacts subject to repatriation under NAGPRA. Additional funerary materials in Alabama Voices, the museum’s centerpiece exhibition covering 1700 to the present, have been removed from display. All exhibitions except The First Alabamians will remain open to general visitors and to school field trips.
The ADAH plans to modify the exhibitions by introducing artifacts that were not part of burials and by incorporating significant advances in archaeological study of indigenous cultures over the past decade. Most notably, the exhibits will newly introduce perspectives offered by numerous tribal groups and highlight the continued vibrancy of indigenous cultures originating from Alabama. Preliminary plans call for the revised exhibits to be open by 2026.
Our goal is to enter respectful partnerships with Native American tribes that will improve our ability to share Alabama’s rich native heritage.
Media Contact: Georgia Ann Hudson, ADAH Communications Coordinator
(334) 353-3312 or email@example.com