In the reservation era, many sacred artifacts, and even human remains, found their way out of Native communities and into private and museum collections, where their spiritual significance was not properly respected. Reclaiming them has been an uphill battle.
Those things are sacred to our people…. This bundle may be handed down through generation to generation, songs may go with it, a certain way of smudging may go with it; there’s certain functions that relate to that bundle. These are our national treasures today that protected our people and helped us survive the great difficulties that we had to go through—starvation, winter, being attacked by enemies, coming of the white man. These things were our helpers, and so…you talk to any traditional Indian, he won’t talk to much about those things. We make it clear that they are sacred and certain things we can talk about or we can’t talk about, those bundles. —Curly Bear Wagner, Amskapi Piikani (Blackfeet), 1999
In 1990, President George Bush signed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) into law, protecting human remains and funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. It was an important, if partial, victory for the Indian community. “Whoever knowingly sells, purchases, uses for profit, or transports for sale or profit, the human remains of a Native American without the rights of possession to those remains…shall be fined…or imprisoned not more than 12 months, or both, and in the case of a second or subsequent violation, be fined in accordance with this title, or imprisoned more than 5 years, or both. —[H.R. 5237] Sec. 4. Illegal Trafficking