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Understanding Indigenous Culture in North Dakota Series: Native American Artifacts and Repatriation

Federal Laws have been passed to prohibit the taking of Native American artifacts from Indian and federal land, including national forests, parks, and Bureau of Land Management land unless one secures a special permit to do so. At times, making situations more complicated, states, counties, and cities have also passed their own laws to limit the taking of Native American objects.

“Cultural Patrimony” is an object with cultural, historic, or traditional importance to a certain group or nation. Throughout history, priceless objects have often been removed from tribes or countries of origin. As a result, many tribes and nations are no longer in possession of objects of their own cultural patrimony. Most recently, tribes and nations who have lost human beings and their remains or objects to looting, war, or inappropriate governmental actions, have made impassioned pleas for the return of the remains or sacred objects.

The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) is the most influential law ever passed protecting Native American human remains and Native American objects. The law provides a process for any federally funded museum, a federal agency, and state agency, “repatriate” or return certain Native American cultural objects including human remains, objects from burial sites, sacred objects, or other integral objects from a tribe’s culture to the Indigenous tribal group they or it comes from. The National Park Service is the federal agency that oversees NAGPRA.

As of July 2021, the U.S. Interior Department has begun consulting with tribal and Native Hawaiian community leaders to conduct a systematic review of existing NAGPRA regulations, in view of eventually proposing updates to the legislation, which Secretary Deb Haaland has called "long overdue."

If you believe that you or someone you know is in possession of a sacred Indigenous object or come across remains on any property, the most critical step would be to contact your nearest tribal office. Tribal representatives will tell you an object’s significance or insignificance or the need for appropriate repatriation.

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe: 701-854-8500 or

Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara Nation: 701-627-4781

Spirit Lake Nation: 701-766-4221

Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa: 701-477-2600 or

Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate: 605-698-3911 or

Other options to properly repatriate human remains or return a sacred indigenous object can include contacting the National Park Service NAGPRA program or the North Dakota State Historic Preservation Office at 701-328-2666 or

Red Basket, Dr. Kathy Froelich, an MHA elder, and CREA Indigenous Culture Coordinator suggests this classroom activity to educators: “We are more alike than we are different.”

Goal: Students will be able to understand that historical/archeological items tell a story about the people who identify with those items. Students will research laws that protect and respect archeological items.

Students will be asked to bring three items from home that will tell them a little about the people they live with, things they do at home, or anything that help others know about their families.

The teacher will be the first to share his/her story using items from home. Questions to answer:

  • Whose items were these?

  • Where were they used?

  • Will they be shared with future generations of the family?

Students will take turns sharing if they agree and will have the opportunity to reflect upon the activity and answer the following questions in written form.

  1. How did the items shared differ from one another?

  2. If these items were found 25 years into the future what might the people say about these items?

  3. Did these items hold cultural significance?

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