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Detail of Gros Ventre Moccasins (NMNH catalog no. E391185)

Anthropology Collections at the National Museum of Natural History
Much of the Native American material now held by the museum was collected as a part of archaeological excavations or anthropological expeditions around the U.S. Remains and objects were also transferred to the Smithsonian from other institutions, including the former U.S. Army Medical Museum. A small number of human remains were collected by private individuals, and large numbers of ethnographic objects were acquired from Native people throughout the 19th and 20th centuries by private collectors and Smithsonian anthropologists.

The National Museum of Natural History collections include 225,000 catalog records for archaeological objects and 57,000 Native American ethnological catalog records from the U.S. Each catalog record, especially for the archaeological material, may contain from one to several thousand items. In addition, the National Museum of Natural History holds 19,250 catalog records of Native American human remains, over 5,500 have been offered for repatriation.

For non-repatriation related collections requests, please visit the website of the Collections Management Division of the Department of Anthropology, where you may also Search the Anthropology Collections digital database.

For non-repatriation related archives requests, please visit the website of the National Anthropological Archives and/or the Native American Heritage resources page at the National Archives.

Tlingit Killer Whale Hat (NMNH catalog no. E230063)

Tlingit Killer Whale hat (E230063) repatriated to Dak'laweidi clan leader, Mark Jacobs, Jr. in 2005. Photo by Betsy Bruemmer, Repatriation Office, 2004.

bulletTraditional Care
Collections care at the National Museum of Natural History emphasizes the protection and preservation of the items for which the museum is responsible.

bulletPesticide Contamination
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was common practice in museums to treat objects with pesticides in an effort to protect them from damage by rodents, insects, and other organisms.

bulletRepatriation of Anthropology Collections
Most of the repatriation claims to date have been for the return of human remains, the majority of which were obtained during archaeological excavations.

Materials Subject to Repatriation
The National Museum of the American Indian Act, passed in 1989, requires the Smithsonian Institution to inventory, identify, and upon request, repatriate culturally affiliated human remains and funerary objects to federally recognized Native American tribes, Native Alaskan Villages and Corporations, and Native Hawaiian organizations. Amendments to this act, passed in 1996, direct the Smithsonian to consider sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony for repatriation as well. In addition, longstanding Smithsonian policy directs us to repatriate objects acquired illegally, as well as the remains of individuals whose identity is known to lineal descendants. The National Museum of Natural History has prepared and sent reports on these collections to Native communities, including inventories of the physical anthropology and archaeology collections, summaries of ethnographic collections, and detailed responses to requests for repatriation.

Storage containing items from the NMNH collection

Anthropology Collections Storage at the National Museum of Natural History's Museum Support Center in Suitland, MD. Photo by Repatriation Office Staff, National Museum of Natural History

The NMAI Act was the first federal law created to address repatriation. A similar law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed in 1990, directs repatriation for all other U. S. institutions that receive federal funding. The Smithsonian Institution is specifically exempt from this law.

Handwritten ledger book

Anthropology Department original handwritten ledger book. Photo by Repatriation Office Staff, National Museum of Natural History.

For definitions of the categories of materials subject to repatriation, and a more detailed explanation of our repatriation policy, please see our Guidelines and Procedures (pdf file).

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