Laws designed to help Native American cultures

Native American tribes have expressed concern that the both the United States government and the country’s legal system have disregarded their culture, history, religion and property. From the desecration of burial sites to the sale of human remains and sacred objects to museums, the laws of the land have often clashed with Native American cultural practices.

But under pressure from Native American lobbyists, the government has enacted some changes that benefit indigenous people. Following are some of the most notable ones:

American Antiquities Act of 1906

After vandalism at the ruins of Casa Grande in Arizona, the U.S. Congress passed a law mandating penalties for those caught destroying historic or prehistoric ruins on public land. Unfortunately, the law didn’t clearly define what “ruins” included, and the desecration of sites and objects continued to escape legal penalty.

National Historic Preservation Act of 1966

The National Historic Preservation Act resulted in the formation of the National Register of Historic Places. Later amendments to the Act led to collaboration between the Secretary of the Interior and tribal authorities in order to gain protection for sites with significant cultural or religious importance.

American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978

As the Antiquities Act had done little to protect Native American religious practices, tribes again lobbied for more effective legislation. In response, the U.S. Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act; unfortunately, the act did not facilitate the return to tribes of culturally and spiritually significant artifacts held in museums. Later amendments offered some progress, such as the prohibition of public access to certain spiritually significant places during ceremonies.

Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979

The next year, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act made the sale, transport or exchange of resources removed without permission from Native American land a crime. While this law was more explicit than earlier legislation, it still didn’t offer protection for artifacts that were less than 100 years old.

Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)

In 1991, the passage of NAGPRA required all federal agencies and museums that hold cultural objects or human remains to provide an inventory to tribes. The tribe then had the authority to demand repatriation, reburial, or even long-term curation. This law also required consultation and permission before removing any cultural items from public or Native American lands.

Tribal Law and Order Act

Recently, the Obama administration has taken steps to protect the rights of American Indians and Native Alaskans under the Tribal Law and Order Act. Before signing the act in July of 2010, President Obama stated that the law’s purpose was to ensure that all people have the right to feel safe in their own communities, whether they live in a remote reservation or a large city, to raise their families in peace.

Simple provisions

In Oklahoma, the Chickasaw tribe had hoped to build a Native American museum and cultural center in scenic Sulphur, a few hours north of Dallas. But in additional to securing funding for the ambitious project, the tribe had to plan according to the adjacent nature preserve and town. In 2004, Congress passed legislation authorizing a land exchange between the tribe, the Chickasaw National Recreation Area and the town of Sulphur, and the Chickasaw were able to proceed with construction.

Many people feel that the emphasis on protecting Native Americans’ rights is long overdue. And there’s more that can be done to help right some of the wrongs native tribes have endured throughout U.S. history.

Cameron Tyler

Cameron Tyler

Cameron Tyler

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