Alec Johnson


The theft of Native American cultural items has been ongoing since Europeans began to colonize the Americas. As a result, millions of Native American artifacts are now located outside the borders of the United States. Native American tribes have long sought international repatriation—the return of these cultural objects to their tribal owners. Unfortunately, many countries have been unsupportive of repatriation attempts and Native Americans seeking the return of their cultural items face nearly insurmountable barriers in foreign courts. The U.S. government has a moral imperative to assist Native American tribes in these repatriation efforts. The debate over repatriation is defined by two competing philosophies: cultural nationalism and cultural internationalism. Cultural nationalism views cultural property as having a national characteristic and favors repatriation. Cultural internationalism is wary of repatriation, and views cultural property as part of a common human culture, regardless of the country of origin. Over the past 40 years, the tide has turned away from cultural internationalism, and various mechanisms for repatriation have been implemented. These mechanisms include international treaties, potential domestic legislation, and mutually beneficial repatriation agreements (“MBRAs”). While these mechanisms have strengths and weaknesses, this Comment argues that MBRAs are the best available mechanism to facilitate repatriation of Native American cultural items. This Comment further advocates for the U.S. government to assist Native American tribes in negotiating MBRAs with foreign nations and institutions in possession of Native American cultural items.



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