Refracting Rights through Material Culture: Implementing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act

March, 2000


Since the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) by the United States Congress in 1990, Native Americanists and legal scholars have claimed that the Act exemplifies progressive human rights legislation. This theoretical connection drawn between NAGPRA and human rights doctrine can be located in the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights promulgated by the United Nations in 1966. To date, however, as implementation of the Act continues, NAGPRA exposes and leaves unresolved several human rights issues beyond the purview of the statute and its regulations. These issues include the making and possession of cultural identities and histories relative to the universality and uniformity of human rights appeals and the capacity of a nation-state to engage alternative cultural and legal ideologies in the adjudication of claims implicating cultural difference. The ongoing challenge to define the legal concepts of culturally affiliated and unaffiliated or unidentifiable human remains, recent cases, and repatriations are discussed to delineate these issues and to reveal certain constraints of liberal democratic governance in addressing human rights claims associated with cultural difference.

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