Alabama to Return Hundreds of Thousands of Native American Artifacts
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.