NAGPRA sounds like one of those over-advertised drugs whose names resemble a Scrabble player’s failed attempt to slip a “word” past an opponent.

In reality, it’s much more powerful.

We’re talking about the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, passed by Congress in 1990. A new federal rule has renewed attention to the 33-year-old law as authorities try to speed up museums’ return of Native American remains, funerary objects and sacred items to tribes.

Once upon a time it wasn’t unusual to find such objects on display in museums or other facilities. While educational, these exhibits nonetheless risked disrespecting the dead even beyond the act of dislodging them from the sites where they were intended to be. Thankfully, NAGPRA formally recognized an ethical responsibility to deliver, or at least attempt to deliver, these remains and objects back to their respective tribes.

Feb. 25 coverage in this newspaper explored the federal rule and how well Arkansas institutions have lived up to their responsibilities under it. The article largely focused on the University of Arkansas, which has a collection of 7.5 million items overall researchers have gathered since 1873. Within that collection, the UA has the remains of approximately 3,000 American Indians. The vast majority of them have been made available to their respective tribes.

According to a database by the independent Pro Publica organization, the UA ranks eighth in the nation in the number of remains made available for return. That is a respectable ranking, in more ways than one.

Today, officials credit former anthropology professor Michael Hoffman and former Arkansas Archeological Survey director Thomas Green for taking seriously the obligation to consult with tribes when it came to the disposition of Indian artifacts.

Sarah Shepard, the survey’s registrar and NAGPRA coordinator today, recently wrote about NAGPRA.

“At its most basic, NAGPRA is a civil rights law,” Shepard wrote in the survey article. “Why is it acceptable for someone to own the remains of an ancestral Native American when it is not acceptable for someone to go out and unlawfully dig up human remains of another culture now?”

Well put.

Much of this nation’s treatment of American Indians has been, in a word, awful. Trying to restore remains or sacred objects to their rightful place among the tribes is the least museums and universities can do.

Arkansans, so used to falling somewhere in the high 40s on national rankings, can be proud of the University of Arkansas and its long-ago effort to make things, if not right, then at least better regarding these remains and objects.

We’re told the UA becomes aware of similar “collections” from time to time from private individuals, as descendants rightly try to behave respectfully with objects they inherit. It will forever be unfortunate that burials or other locations have been disrupted over the decades, but anyone who comes into possession of some long-held artifact does the right thing when they reach out to professionals.

There’s no wrong time to treat remains and other tribal objects with respect. We’re proud to see the University of Arkansas has been treating them that way for a long time.

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