University of New Mexico Associate Professor of Anthropology, and curator of Human Osteology at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology Heather Edgar has been appointed to the Native American Graves Protection and Reparation Act (NAGPRA) Review Committee by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.
This important national advisory committee is charged with monitoring the progress made among museums, federal agencies and Native American tribes in determining final settlements of funerary objects and human skeletal remains of Native American people.
Edgar says the committee hears disputes, creates finding of fact and makes recommendations to Jewell, who has the final decision in questions where a resolution among the interested parties is not possible.
“There are a million complexities with this act,” Edgar says. “It’s not very straightforward at all. When the law was passed in 1990, there were no regulations to support is and 25 years later those regulations are still being created.”
There are seven members of the committee. Three members are nominated by various scientific and museum organizations, three are nominated by Native American Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations, and a seventh member is nominated by the committee itself.
Edgar has had experience in handling complex cases. In 2005 the Federal Bureau of Investigation handled a New Mexico case in which a private business outside Carlsbad was displaying Native American remains for profit in a roadside attraction. That was in violation of NAGPRA, and the Maxwell Museum agreed to take the remains. Edgar says she and her students spent many hours and thousands of dollars trying to find where the remains came from and whether they were affiliated with any contemporary tribal group.
She also spent years working with the Pueblo of Jemez to return Native American remains housed at the Maxwell Museum to the Pueblo. Edgar says the Maxwell has always been a leader among museums in working with local tribes to enforce the act.
Edgar has written papers on the ethics of collecting human remains and studied why museums choose to collect NAGPRA objects or choose not to. In her research she found that some museums choose not to collect human remains as an ethical decision. Other museums choose to accept human remains as a matter of ethics so they can assure the remains are treated respectfully rather than as objects of commerce.