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This page provides infomation about the Research Laboratories of Archaeology’s (RLA) past, current, and future efforts to comply with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Download a PDF of this document here.

I. Past RLA NAGPRA Work (1989 through January 2024)

The RLA’s efforts to comply with NAGPRA began immediately before the law’s passage with consultations between the RLA and UNC-Chapel Hill College of Arts and Sciences leadership and Associate University Counsel in 1989. The University supported the RLA in its NAGPRA compliance by funding a one-year position during the 1994-1995 academic year for conducting an inventory of Ancestors held by the RLA. The RLA also received a NAGPRA inventory grant from the National Park Service in 1995. In compliance with NAGPRA and the terms of the grant, the RLA consulted with Tribes by mail and also held two on-campus meetings with Cherokee and Catawba Tribes. In 1996, the RLA submitted an inventory of Ancestors and funerary objects to the National Park Service along with a separate document outlining the RLA’s repatriation policies and procedures. Two notices of inventory completion, one for Cherokee-affiliated Ancestors and one for Catawba-affiliated Ancestors, were submitted to Tribes and National Park Service at this time.

Between 1999 and January 2024, the RLA has had four notices of inventory completion published in the Federal Register (Table 1) and has repatriated Ancestors and funerary objects from 24 sites (Table 2). Approximately 900 Ancestors presently in the care of the RLA have not been affiliated with a Tribe (Figure 1, below).

II. Current RLA NAGPRA Work (beginning January 2024)

The RLA is reviewing its research, exhibit, and curation practices to determine whether they are consistent with the new NAGPRA regulations published in December of 2023. Even prior to the publication of the new regulations, the RLA had begun to review and change some practices to be more consistent with emergent disciplinary norms regarding Tribal consultation prior to publication and exhibit of funerary objects. For example, in August 2023 all locked glass-front cabinets containing funerary objects in the RLA Curation Facility were covered with undyed cotton muslin cloth, and the portion of the facility housing Ancestors was screened off. The locations and significance of these reverential spaces were communicated to students and researchers.

Activities are underway to ensure that the RLA’s practices are consistent with the new NAGPRA regulations. Many of these assessments will be ongoing until a new set of RLA policies can be developed in consultation with Tribes. These activities include reviewing:

  • 1,301 3D models on the RLA Sketchfab site; 298 models of funerary objects have been removed pending consultation
  • 807 media files on the Archaeology at Carolina website
  • 110 digitally available RLA publications and reports (7750+ pages total) for images and line drawings of Ancestors and funerary objects; 180+ photographs and 100+ line drawings of Ancestors, funerary objects, and/or graves have been identified
  • 7,163 media files on the Ancient North Carolinians: A Virtual Museum of North Carolina Archaeology website to identify images of funerary objects
  • 73,188 media files in the RLA Digital File Archive hosted on the UNC Libraries Digital Collections Repository website for images of funerary objects
  • 286,978 records (representing more than eight million artifacts) in the RLA Specimen Catalog for objects from burial contexts that had not been documented as funerary objects or unassociated funerary objects in the 1996 RLA NAGPRA Inventory

III. Future RLA NAGPRA Work: Moving Forward

We seek to ensure the repatriation of all Ancestors, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony in the RLA collections to the appropriate federally recognized Tribe or Tribes. Moving beyond compliance, we also seek to shape RLA policies and procedures in accordance with current best practices regarding research, exhibition, and care of archaeological materials related to the history of American Indian Tribes. Recognizing the central importance of traditional knowledge in achieving these goals, our work will be built around consultation with members of American Indian communities in North Carolina and beyond.

In our work, it is imperative that our efforts are guided by open communication and transparency with descendant communities, as well as with colleagues and students. We have reached out to begin consultation with federally recognized Tribes. Based on geographic and historical ties, each of these Tribes may have an ancestral interest in Ancestors or objects in RLA collections. We are also engaged in conversations with members of North Carolina’s state-recognized Tribal communities, on campus, through the UNC American Indian Center, and off-campus through the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs and North Carolina American Indian Heritage Commission.

The RLA has applied for a NAGPRA consultation grant to help support this process. Through consultation with Tribes, we will affiliate ancestors and identify objects of cultural patrimony in RLA collections, as well as establish criteria for a NAGPRA inventory update. These consultations will also guide the development of RLA policies on collections-based research and fieldwork that will align with collaborative, inclusive, and community-based practice. In sum, we have a good deal of work ahead of us, and we view this work as a valuable opportunity to listen to, learn from, and build relationships with descendant communities whose heritage we wish to help steward.

Figure 1. Location of Tribally Unaffiliated Ancestors and funerary objects on the 1996 NAGPRA Inventory