WASHINGTON, DC – Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) members today unanimously approved a critical update to its 2007 policy statement on burial sites, human remains, and funerary objects.
The new policy was adopted in response to unfortunate and traumatic incidents of disturbances of these sites, remains, and objects, some of which occurred as federal agencies conducted undertakings during Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act reviews. The policy formally recognizes that the places and people most often disturbed are those associated with racial and ethnic minorities, Indian tribes, Native Hawaiians, and Alaska Natives, and low-income communities. It also acknowledges the impact of climate change on sites, cemeteries, and associated cultural practices, which might in turn threaten their identification and protection.
The policy advances 13 principles, with the main guiding principle that burial sites, human remains, and funerary objects should be treated with dignity and respect in all circumstances including, but not limited to, all times prior to and during consultation, during field surveys, when handling must occur, in documenting and/or reporting, if treatment actions occur, and in all other forms of interaction. The policy also prohibits disturbing these sites, remains, and objects except in rare circumstances, and only after consultation with descendant communities.
When implemented by the ACHP through its oversight of the Section 106 process, the policy will apply to federal agencies and any applicants or developers seeking federal licenses or permits. However, the policy’s reach is not limited to the federal government; the ACHP encourages state and local governments, nongovernmental institutions, and private developers to adhere to the principles set forth in the policy.
“We have a duty to protect burial grounds, the remains of our ancestors, and sacred objects,” ACHP Chair Sara C. Bronin said. “The ACHP will use its authority and influence to ensure that the principles enshrined in our recently-adopted policy become nationally recognized minimum standards for anyone engaged in development projects.”
The policy was adopted after extensive consultation, including government-to-government consultation with members of tribal communities and representatives of tribal governments. As an independent federal agency, the ACHP has trust responsibility to Indian tribes to protect tribal lands and cultural and natural resources. The new policy incorporates the concept of Indigenous Knowledge and supports the Department of the Interior’s Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative. It also aligns with the Biden Administration’s current priorities, such as the Indigenous Sacred Sites Memorandum of Understanding and the recently released Guidance for Federal Departments and Agencies on Indigenous Knowledge.
“Burial sites, human remains, and funerary objects are sacred to Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian people,” said Reno Franklin, Chairman for the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians and the ACHP’s Tribal/Native Hawaiian member. “By adopting this policy statement, the ACHP is reorienting federal policy to help protect the important locations and associated cultural practices that are central to so many people.”