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How do new federal regulations on Native displays affect Nevada museums?

Exterior of the Nevada Museum of Art building.
Courtesy of Nevada Museum of Art
The Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, Nev.

Museums all around the country are covering or closing exhibits featuring Native American artwork and artifacts due to new federal regulations.

On Jan. 27, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City closed some of its areas featuring Native American artifacts.

Many museums have done this to comply with a recent update to the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) that took effect in January.

Since the 1950s, the Nevada State Museum has served as a federal and state repository for archaeological finds, said Josh Bonde, museum director and member of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone.

Even before these regulations, the museum shifted gears and has worked with the tribes for over 20 years, Bonde said. One example is the museum's permanent exhibit "Under One Sky," that showcases the history of Nevada's tribes. This fall, the museum will open a Washoe basketry gallery.

“As a museum professional and Indigenous person, I think these new laws are great, I think it gives more voice to the tribes, it gives more voice to our people. And I think it holds museums to a higher standard of collaboration and, and just being more open with the tribes,” Bonde said.

Although the museum houses many archaeological finds, none of them are on display, Bonde said.

“We do have some objects that are considered culturally sensitive under this new law, but they're stored at the Nevada State Museum, on behalf of the Bureau of Land Management, and a couple of other federal land management agencies such as the Department of Defense. Now, are any of these objects on exhibit? Absolutely not,” he said.

The goal of the federal regulation is to speed up the process of returning Native American remains, objects of cultural patrimony, funerary objects and other sacred items to tribes.

It also says if human remains or ceremonial objects or funeral objects were taken from tribal lands or federal lands, they need to be returned to Native American and Native Hawaiian groups.

Objects can't be on display or used for research unless there is consultation and explicit permission from the tribe they belong to.

The Nevada Museum of Art in Reno has never held any types of cultural belongings in their permanent collection that could be affected by the new federal regulations, museum director Ann Wolfe said.

“We do house in our collection many contemporary Native American baskets, and Native American pottery, but we're very much committed to being very transparent about how those collections came into our possession,” she said.

Wolfe says all efforts to repatriate cultural belongings, sacred objects and human remains, continue to be overdue.

These new regulations put the responsibility back on museums to continue those efforts that began in the ‘90s, Wolfe said.

Maria joined KUNR Public Radio in December 2022 as a staff reporter. She is interested in stories about underserved communities, immigration, arts and culture, entertainment, education and health.