Museums across the country like the Chicago Field Museum are covering up or closing down Native American exhibits because of an update to federal law. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA) gives guidance to federally-fund exhibits on the proper way to display Native American artifacts.

“Prior to NAGPRA, museums were responsible for reporting what they had in their collections,” James Watson, the associate director of the Arizona State Museum, said.

But with NAGPRA, he said, they have to consult with tribal communities about the artifacts that they had in their collections. Now, one of the main parts of the recent update to that law states that museums need to consult with tribes and nations before the artifacts are on display. The consultants would decide if the items are funerary items, human remains or sacred objects.

“The reason some museums are shutting down their exhibits is because they didn’t have prior consultation,” Watson said.

At the Arizona State Museum, on the University of Arizona campus at 1013 E. University Blvd., there are three exhibits with Native American artifacts currently. And Watson said they are constantly getting consultants involved in the process, which is why they haven’t had to cover any of their exhibits when the new regulations went into effect.

“We have a long history of consulting with or partnering with tribal communities,” he said. “We had to bring in a lot of tribal consultants to address any concerns they may have about not only what we are putting on display but how we are telling that story, because it’s not our story to tell.”