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Luce Archaeological Sites

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Amateur archaeologist Frederick A. Luce conducted digs throughout the Greater Haverhill area.

Thera Luce

The Fred A. Luce collection would not be what it is without the hard work and dedication of his wife and partner in archaeology, Thera F. Luce. 

Thera labeled and cataloged thousands of artifacts, deciphered and organized Fred's field notes, and kept track of the extensive Luce collection as well as other collections the Haverhill Archaeological Society acquired. Her detailed notes on each object, especially the provenance, is essential to research and collections management today. 

What is NAGPRA and Why Do We Need It?

What is NAGPRA and Why Do We Need It?


The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was signed into law on November 16, 1990. It requires that human remains of any ancestry be treated with dignity and respect. It also provides a framework for the repatriation of human remains, funerary objects, and objects of cultural patrimony to lineal descendants, Indian Tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations. NAGPRA is under the Department of the Interior and the legal definition as well as guidelines can be seen on the National Park Service website. NAGPRA is, first and foremost, a civil rights law, enacted after over a century of Native American rights activism. Its success lies in requiring collaboration and communication between institutions and Indigenous tribes. Suzan Shown Harjo, (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee) Native American rights advocate says:  

The major policy achievement and the hardest-fought battle in the development of repatriation laws has been the humanization of Native Peoples–the legal recognition that we, too, have the human rights to get buried and stay buried, to recover our people and property from those who want to own them, to worship in the manner and with the objects of our choosing (Fine-Dare 2002; 117). 


The question of how NAGPRA came to be a law and why we need involves a long history of violence against Native peoples and the desecration of Native graves and human remains. You may be surprised to learn that the first recorded account of the disturbance of a Native American grave was in 1620, shortly after the Mayflower landed in what would become the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  Mourt’s Relation, an account of the first year of the arrival of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower, written between November of 1620 and November of 1621, describes a Pilgrim encounter with a Wampanoag grave. When the Pilgrims first realized it was a grave, it says, “We supposed there were many other things [in it], but because we deemed them graves, we put in the bow again and made it up as it was, and left the rest untouched, because we thought it would be odious unto them to ransack the sepulchers”(Peters in Kerber 2006; 36). Unfortunately that respect for the Wampanoag graves did not last. It was not long before the Pilgrims returned to the site and took everything out of it except the human remains. The Pilgrims continued to seek out graves, knowing they could be filled with valuable or interesting objects, even though they also knew it would be a despicable act to the Wampanoag.

Fred Luce, the collector of Native American artifacts whose extensive collection is here at Buttonwoods, wrote about this event, the first grave found by the Pilgrims at Corn Hill, in his journals. However, he, and many others like him in the fields of archaeology and anthropology, used the example set by the Pilgrims to continue to excavate Native American graves. Following his description of the Pilgrim encounter with a Wampanoag grave at Corn Hill, he gives detailed descriptions about his own Native American grave excavations, nearly 300 years later. It may never have occurred to Fred Luce and others in his field that what he was doing was hurtful to Native descendants. 

Many in New England believed that Native Americans no longer inhabited their traditional lands, having moved on to make way for large populations of settlers. It’s a sentiment that gets repeated in stories and books, becoming accepted as fact from repetition. Fred wrote about his childhood in Haverhill, remembering the Native Americans who would occasionally stop by his home when he was a boy. In one instance, he wrote, when someone in the family was very sick, the Native Americans returned to the house with their medicines and cured the sickness. Later Fred wrote that the Native Americans moved on, far away, as more and more houses of white settlers filled the woods. However, this is a common misconception of the time comes from the assumption that Native Americans remain frozen in time, looking and living like they did when Europeans and Native peoples first observed each other 400-500 years ago. There are many tribes and bands of Native Americans in New England, but only a few are federally recognized. Disproving the pervasive myth of the “vanishing Indian” is a large part of Native American rights work. Native Americans are still here, and deserve the right to protect the graves and remains of ancestors (Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker 2016).    

The myth of the “vanishing Indian” combined with the myth of settler superiority has been the source of centuries of violence and harm to living Native Americans today. Some scientists and amateur archaeological collectors over the last 150 years dug up graves in order to prove or disprove the theory that Europeans were genetically superior or that Native Americans were primitive. Others did it to sell curiosities or put them on display in private or public collections. In many instances, especially after massacres Native Americans, such as at Wounded Knee in 1890, opportunistic grave robbers with malicious intent, took Native bodies and sold parts for display, many of them adorning exhibitions at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair where the message was the progress of the United States and the primitive and vanishing Native American (Fine-Dare 2002: Chapter 1 & 2). 

 Native Americans and Native Hawaiians fought for protection of graves and heritage sites, for the return of ancestors and sacred funerary objects, and for respect and self determination of living Indigenous peoples. NAGPRA was designed in collaboration with Native American rights groups. A coalition made up by representatives from the National Congress of American Indians, Native American Rights Fund, the Association for American Indian Affairs, and the National American Indian Council, formed in order to lobby for Federal legislation to repatriate human remains and prevent grave robbing and desecration from happening in the future. In February of 1990 this coalition made a statement:

Indian dead bodies are viewed as specimens or trophies and not as people by American society. This attitude has resulted in mass desecration of Indian graves and remains throughout the country. This increasing problem has reached crisis proportions in many victimized Indian communities. No right thinking person would desecrate a white man’s grave, but too many people do not think twice about desecrating an Indian grave in the name of science, profit, or entertainment (Fine-Dare 2002: 117).


The findings of the coalition led to the passage of the legislation signed into law by President George H.W. Bush before the end of the year. 

The violence committed on Native bodies, living and deceased, has long lasting dehumanizing consequences to our Native American communities who are still here today. NAGPRA as a law stands as a tool for healing and reconciliation by facilitating repatriation of remains as well as the communication between Native people and public institutions required for repatriation to happen. However, that does not mean that healing is a given or that the process of requesting the return of ancestral remains is not traumatic as well for Native peoples. Ramona Peters, tribal member of the Wampanoag, wrote “Consulting with the Bone Keepers: NAGPRA Consultations and Archaeological Monitoring in the Wampanoag Territory” about her experience as the tribal representative tasked with consulting with various institutions which held the remains of her ancestors. Her job required her to visit these places and see the remains in boxes, on shelves, in drawers, as if they were artifacts not people. That takes a very heavy toll. So too does explaining to a museum that they need to return an ancestor even if the ancestor is labeled as “cultural origin unknown” or other ambiguous descriptors  in order to side step the law. NAGPRA is a powerful piece of human rights legislation, and it has done so much in the last 30 years to right past and ongoing wrongs, and reshape the awareness in the public eye of Native American heritage, there is always more work to be done and more that we can do to be respectful.  

The process of repatriation through NAGPRA takes time–much more time than anyone thought when the law expected inventories of potential artifacts to be compiled by 1993, then 1995, and even more extensions given to many institutions. The process also takes time and money for tribes to petition for the repatriation of their ancestors, to visit institutions for consultations, and to travel. Most tribes do not have inexhaustible resources to do so, and must apply for grants through the National Park Service. There are other hitches with the legislation. One is that the law only covers Federally funded institutions, anyone receiving federal funding even as a private institution–such as universities receiving a National Science Foundation Grant. The law also only recognizes federally recognized tribes and Native Hawaiian Organizations. There are over 500 federally recognized tribes in the continental United States but many, many, many more that are not federally recognized. When NAGPRA passed in 1990, several unrecognized tribes chose to join and be absorbed by federally recognized tribes just to make the repatriation process easier. Others not recognized need the assistance of a federally recognized tribe to petition on their behalf. Such is the case for many tribes in Massachusetts. Massachusetts has two federally recognized tribes: the Aquinnah Wampanoag on Martha’s Vineyard and the Mashpee Wampanoag. Tribes such as the Pennacook, Mohican, Nipmuc, and Massachusett and many others are not federally recognized. 

We have learned a lot over the years of working with NAGPRA and consulting with Native American communities. One is that the work of NAGPRA is never finished. There is always more to learn and opportunities to listen and to engage respectful collections practices. It is important to treat remains, associated funerary remains, unassociated funerary remains, and objects of cultural patrimony to the specifications of the tribal descendants. Although the law has limitations, museums can go further in bridging those gaps and honor the cultural understandings of Native American communities.

Further Reading


Colwell, Chip. “Can Repatriation Heal the Wounds of History?” The Public Historian 41, no. 1 (2019): 90–110. 


Den Ouden, Amy E., and Jean M. O’Brien. Recognition, Sovereignty Struggles, & Indigenous Rights in the United States a Sourcebook. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.  


  Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne, and Dina Gilio-Whitaker. “All the Real Indians Died Off” : and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016.


Fine-Dare, Kathleen. Grave Injustice: The American Indian Repatriation Movement and NAGPRA. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.  Gulliford, A. “Bones of Contention: The Repatriation of Native American Human Remains.” The Public historian 18, no. 4 (1996): 119–143.  


Kerber, Jordan E. Cross-Cultural Collaboration : Native Peoples and Archaeology in the Northeastern United States. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.  


Nash, Stephen E, and Chip Colwell. “NAGPRA at 30: The Effects of Repatriation.” Annual Review of Anthropology 49, no. 1 (2020): 225–239. 


Wheeler, Ryan, Jaime Arsenault, and Marla Taylor. “Beyond NAGPRA/Not NAGPRA.” Collections 18, no. 1 (March 2022): 8–17.