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Penn reaffirms commitment to repatriate museum’s Native American cultural objects


The Penn Museum announced that they will be repatriating more Native American cultural objects under NAGPRA. 

Credit: Gabriel Jung

Penn passed two resolutions committing to the repatriation of Native American cultural objects from the Penn Museum.

At a Feb. 29 meeting, the University Board of Trustees’ Academic Policy Committee passed one resolution authorizing the Museum to repatriate a wampum belt requested by the Passamaquoddy tribe in Maine. The other resolution passed reaffirmed the Museum’s commitment to repatriation in response to adjusted regulations for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which went into effect in January.   

Provost John L. Jackson wrote in a statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian that the second resolution “allows us to continue to conduct such repatriations in a manner consistent with new NAGPRA regulations.” He added that he “support[s] both resolutions.”

Penn Trustee and Academic Policy Committee Chair David Ertel led the voting process for the resolutions, which each passed unanimously and without discussion. Penn Museum did not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication. 

The act, which was signed into law in November of 1990 and is under the domain of the National Park Service, mandates the “return of specific kinds of objects to Native Americans,” according to a statement on the Museum’s website. The objects subject to repatriation include human remains, funerary objects, objects of cultural patrimony, and sacred objects. 

As of 2023, 60 formal repatriation claims have been received by the Museum, of which 39 repatriations have been completed.

The act’s new regulations “clarify and improve upon the systematic processes for the disposition or repatriation of Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony,” according to the National Park Service’s website. 

The regulations went into effect on Jan. 12, and the passage of the resolutions at the Committee meeting ensures that the Penn Museum will be able to continue repatriation efforts without issue. 

The approval of the resolutions comes after the National Park Service sent a Notice of Intent to Repatriate Cultural Items to the Penn Museum on Jan 9. The notice called for the repatriation of several sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony to a tribe in Sitka, Alaska, that were originally purchased by a curator employed by the Penn Museum in 1918, 1925, and 1926. 

The notice calls for the repatriation of items that are “specific ceremonial objects…[that] have ongoing historical, traditional, or cultural importance central to the Native American group or culture itself.” It also instructed the Museum on its responsibility to send a copy of the notice to “the Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations identified” in it. 

The notice of intent states that the repatriation of the listed items — which included a Wolf Helmet, a Ganook Hat, a Shark Helmet, a Noble Killer Hat, and an Eagle Hat — would occur anytime on or after Feb. 15. The objects have not yet been repatriated, according to the list of repatriations on the Penn Museum’s website.

Throughout the past year and since the adoption of new regulations, several peer universities have increased their repatriation efforts, including Harvard University, which offered funding for tribes; and the University of California, Berkeley, which in November announced its largest-ever repatriation.

Beyond artifacts, seven institutions in Pennsylvania — including the Penn Museum — continue to hold Native American remains, according to a recent ProPublica and NBC News investigation. Penn Museum director Christopher Woods previously told the Philadelphia Inquirer that repatriation is “incredibly sensitive, time-consuming work.” He added that the work is “ongoing.”

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