NAGPRA was passed into law in 1990. Before this, Indian remains and sacred items were under very little, if any, legal protection. Indian burial sites were not viewed on par with European or American cemeteries. Many times an Indian burial site as either an oppurtunrity for a pot-hunter/grave robber to make money by selling the remains and associated funerary objects or a chance for archeologist, both professional and amateur to build their careers, and offer their own explanation of the history of the people who occupied North America before 1492. Development also has been a huge factor in the destruction of ancient burial sites. Not much emphasis was put into respecting these burial grounds. It’s as if these peoples’ last rites didn’t matter and their descendants are non-existent.
On the contrary, the dead do have rights and their descendants are still here. Traditions are still alive in the communities, traditions that require the sacred items alienated from their original homes to be returned. Indians are really a resilient people and this shows in their constant fight to have their dead and beliefs respected. NAGPRA recognizes these rights to both the living and the deceased. For many years Indians have watched as their ancestors have been desecrated and their ceremonies splintered by the taking of their sacred objects. Now, after these many years, Indian people have a legal tool to utilize to have what is sacred returned. NAGPRA was needed because the Indian people are still here, still practicing their old ways and because no matter who you are, you should be respected after you are laid to rest.