Preserving cultural heritage in the United States

Melissa Halverson10 years after, ArticleLeave a Comment

Melissa HalversonWe thank SAFE Volunteer Melissa Halverson for her contribution to the 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage.


One of my favorite stories stemming from a career as an anthropologist and museum professional lies in what is right in our efforts to preserve cultural heritage.

Looting affects all geographic areas of the United States and an estimated 90% of known archaeological sites in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado (US Congress, 1988).  A major issue with looting in the U.S. lies in the fact that objects become the property of whoever owns the land in which they were found. The Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed in 1990 to reduce illegal looting and trafficking. It also attempts to reconcile American Indians with human remains and sacred and ceremonial objects that had been taken from them and found their way to museum collections around the country.  In the majority of cases, NAGPRA has helped to solidify trust and good relationships between local American Indian tribes and museums.

Melissa Halverson at museum

The author posing with some arctic artwork at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian

During my undergraduate and graduate research, I worked with NAGPRA compliance by gaining tribal approval to amplify ancient DNA and to study some skeletal samples that had not yet been returned to the tribe.  A few years ago, I interned at Washington state agency and got to see how meaningful our efforts to curb looting really can be.  An American Indian burial had been discovered in someone’s front yard during a routine water line inspection and I got to assist with the excavation.  Local tribal representatives came out to the site and shared the day with us.  At the end of the experience, the human remains and burial objects were returned to the tribe for proper burial. This individual was a tribal member. Anti-looting laws helped bring him back home where he can rest with his ancestors.  He is no longer in any danger of ending up on a museum shelf or being traded on the black market (learn more about Washington State American Indian tribes here).

I am proud to have collaborated on such a wonderful project and it was an amazing feeling to use my skills in archaeological excavation to make a small difference for the American Indian tribe, the safety of the human remains and archaeological materials, and the stability of local cultural heritage.

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Melissa Halverson

Melissa Halverson received her BA in Anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis, her MA in Physical Anthropology from the University of Texas in Austin, and her Museum Studies Certificate from the University of Washington. She is currently Curator of Exhibits and Collections at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Evanston, IL.

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