My Internship at the Museum and the History of NAGPRA

This fall semester of my junior year I was given the opportunity to work as an archaeology intern working on cultural material subject to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). As someone who used to be a socio-cultural anthropology major, my transition into archaeology has been an exciting learning experience. The ability to work as an intern at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History has been a large part of propelling me towards that goal. Working with NAGPRA especially was a great aid in expanding my archaeological knowledge and experience. NAGPRA is especially significant within archaeology because it shapes how archaeologists interact with Native American remains and sacred objects and their descendants. The act allows a process to take place for these remains and objects to be returned in a timely manner to ensure the tribes can return them to their rightful place.
Working with NAGPRA has been a very eye-opening experience for me. What I knew prior was limited to the single slide I saw in my Intro to Archaeology class last year. Since I began interning, I have learned far more about the profound impact NAGPRA has had on the Native American and Archaeology community and what needed to happen for NAGPRA to be enacted. In an interview between Suzan Shown Harjo and Robert Preucel “An Archaeology of NAGPRA: A Conversation with Suzan Shown Harjo” it details the planning and strategic steps that took place to ensure NAGPRA could happen. In this interview, Susan Harjo (a native Oklahoman) expounded on how she worked with the initiative that led to the creation of NAGPRA. What began as a horrifying experience at the Museum of the American Indian in 1965, generated a drive in Harjo to gather Native American groups to create a framework for the ethical treatment of Native American human remains and sacred material in museum collections and archaeological practice. With the help of the National Congress of the American Indians she was able to lobby for the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, National Museum of American Indian, and pave the way for NAGPRA. Those first steps that led to NAGPRA began a new era in archaeology within the U.S. that has caused much progress to take place. This interview emphasized the extreme importance of returning Native American individuals and associated items back to their descendants to repair the hurt that’s been caused and to foster new relationships between Native American groups, museums, and archaeologists. Being able to help in this process is something I am extremely proud of and fortunate to do.
Overall this internship has brought more insight to me than I could describe in one blog post. It has given me first-hand experience on museum protocol and a bigger picture of the national role museums play in archaeology. I recommend this internship for anyone with a thirst for knowledge and curiosity of the behind the scenes museum archaeology work.
-Helen Sanders


Rules. We don’t need no stinking rules.

Don’t you just hate being told what to do? And it’s surprising how many people tell me what to do all the time.  However, I operate under the premise that you can either tell me what to do or how to do it, but you can’t tell me both.  Unfortunately, no one abides by that simple precept and they generally tell me both what to do and how to do it.  But no more.  Now I am making the rules and this leads us into our subject of the day.  Rules, museums, and archaeology.  Lucky for you, I am here to guide you through what could be an Orwellian nightmare of unimaginable consequences.   But first, a little background.  I moved to Norman at the beginning of summer from Key West to attend the University of Oklahoma and earn a degree in Archaeology. At the beginning of my second semester here, there was an advertisement for an internship at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History. I’m old, I like old stuff, this seemed to be a perfect fit.  I applied for the position and after meeting with the collections manager, Susie Fishman-Armstrong, she accepted me anyway.  She explained that I would be working on the NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) side of the house helping to repatriate NAGPRA related items to the Tribes that claimed them. I then received the standard welcome aboard speech and tour of the facilities.  The dystopic hell scape that is the dumpster fire of my mind began to notice the need, or more accurately the want to satisfy my mild OCD tendencies of organization.  The practically uncountable boxes that lay in row after row of cardboard uniformity, stacked on shelves upon shelves that thrust their metal fingers towards the ceiling, started sending those mild OCD tendencies into overdrive and turned them into almost manic compulsions. So, at this point, I know what you are thinking and let me just stop you right there.  To all of you single archaeologist women who are thinking wow.  I have to get me some of him, I am married.  Sorry.  Now we are getting to the point that is the meat of the story.  Glorious rules.  Before I could even start to fathom the beginning of this monumental task, I really needed to know everything from the most basic of actions such as where is my work station and how do I move a box from the shelving units to my work area to much more complex requirements such as how do I properly handle funerary objects and human remains with the dignity and respect that they deserve.  I now have reached a state of Nirvana.  Not only do I get to organize, but I get to develop rules about organization.  (slight body shiver as I think about this).  I have begun to write the hundreds if not thousands of rules that it will take to bring into line both the actual and the perceived chaos that may or may not exist.  Ok, thousands for me, maybe five or ten for a normal person.  On a slightly more serious note, this internship has afforded me the opportunity to get real world experience in a field that to me is quite exciting.  I am honored to be able to be involved in the process of repatriating NAGPRA items back to the Tribes that have claimed them and show them the dignity and respect that is their due.

Why consider interning a the Sam Noble Museum?

Why did I decide to pursue an internship at the Sam Noble Museum? Was it because of my fascination with Indiana Jones movies? Was it because of my research focus of Native American Culture? Or was it because of the Dinosaurs?

To anyone who has visited the Sam Noble, the answer would probably be the dinosaurs! For me, it was a bit of all three. The actual reason is my fascination with Native American Culture, and yes, the chance I might get a tour of the paleontology department’s dinosaur collections, but also the far greater dimension encompassed within the total Sam Noble collections.

My own background was originally studying Native American History and culture. When I changed from pursuing a Master’s degree in History, I went into Museum Studies. The history of human material culture has always fascinated me. From my early years watching PBS documentaries rather than Saturday morning cartoons, and my ever-present obsession with digging, I knew I would work within the fields of history or material culture.

When the opportunity came to select an internship I would pursue, The Sam Noble was the top of my list. The variety and size of the collection, the relatively close geographic location, and the reputation of the museum itself, all made my choice for me. There was no other place that I could work with so many of the artifacts that fascinated me. The Sam Noble was the obvious choice, and having made that choice, I sought permission to internship here with Susie, the collections manager in the archaeology department. I am glad she accepted me, because, as so many students do, I had no backup plan. This was the goal, and I was going to get it. After being accepted, I found that I would be working in the archaeology department, and specifically with NAGPRA artifacts and other Native American artifacts- which thrilled me greatly.

My focus on Native American History made this internship an especially rewarding one. Having the opportunity to work with NAGPRA collections, and learn more of the respectful practices and traditions of the tribes with which we work is something I will always cherish. When you catalog a simple rock- it is a rock… it will never be more interesting than a rock. When you catalog a rock that was utilized for a specific purpose by a Native American, it is special- it tells a story. The history of Native Oklahomans is a story yet to be fully revealed or told, and the work we do every day helps reveal that story.

When I chose this internship, I felt like Harry Potter being brought to Hogwarts for the first time. The marvel, the magnificent displays, the history and the Dinosaurs…! I admit- It was hard not to geek out.

I truly love my time here, and would encourage anyone with a love of natural history to volunteer or intern at the Sam Noble- you will not regret it!

Learning Something New Every Day

When I started at OU as a freshman in the fall of 2017, I was certain I wanted to be a field archaeologist after I graduated. After spending a semester as the legacy collections intern at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History (SNOMNH), I’m not so sure. As my boss, collections manager Susie Fishman-Armstrong, told me, the real discovery is often not out it the field, but rather here in museums. Being able to work here at the museum has been amazing, and has really opened my eyes to the possibilities of museum work as a career.

Personally, what drew me in to this opportunity was the “behind the scenes” aspect to it. As someone who loves museums, it has been fascinating to have a hand in the process of working with artifacts, and to see the many other elements of museum collections at work, such as research and conservation. Getting a larger perspective has given me a greater appreciation for the work that museum professionals do, and for the important roles of curators, collection managers, volunteers, janitors, conservators, pest management, security officers, and many other people whose roles are in the “back of the house”. Another particularly interesting part of this internship has been the mystery of the work, specifically with the inventory.

My main project for the year was completing a full inventory of the artifacts and records in the 5th floor and the 2nd floor lab, which are part of our “Legacy” collections. When a museum is bringing in a new collection of artifacts, or when collections that are already at the museum are being worked with or researched on, it’s easy for a museum to get behind on projects, and leave some particularly difficult work off to the side, to get back to later. The artifacts and collections I was inventorying could have been last looked at a year ago, in the 1930s, or anywhere in between. It was a daunting project, but thankfully the previous intern, Wynne Clark (read her blog post here) had already put together a system and went through the 4th floor legacy collections with it, so I had a strong model to follow, and existing protocols. Using her system, I implemented it on the 5th floor collections, modifying as needed to accommodate the unique issues that arose.

The process was simple, on the surface. I went through box by box (through 141 archival boxes, 3 stacks of maps, 6 mason jars, 26 trays, 2 enormous plastic storage bins, and 1 large blue cooler) opening them up and taking notes in a spreadsheet about what was inside, including any information that came with the artifacts. The goal of the whole endeavor was to know as much as we could about what was in the collections. The things I found ranged from pottery vessels related to the Spiro Mounds site, to South American obsidian points, to historic glass and pottery, not to mention the hundreds of rock samples in the Lithic Type Collection, used for matching stone artifacts to their sources. Now that these artifacts are in the inventory, they can be found for research, exhibits, and NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) related projects, as soon as we need them.

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While my inventory is finished, legacy collections are still a large problem facing the SNOMNH, and the larger museum community. If the inventory isn’t kept up, and updated whenever things get moved or worked with, then the problem will return. Just as well, now that these collections have been rediscovered, there is still a lot of work to be done to process them, including further research, cataloging, cleaning, and labeling.

This is where you come in. The SNOMNH, and many other museums like it, runs on volunteers in every department, both out with the exhibits and in the back with the collections, and not just archaeology. There are positions for adult and teen volunteers, as well as current OU students. Dates and hours are flexible, and opportunities open up all the time. Whether you are interested in people, plants, animals, or rocks, an organized person or more innovative, more creative or more practical, wanting to jump right in or to just get your feet wet, there is an opportunity for you. Ultimately, museums exist for the people, and there is no better way to get involved and get invested than to volunteer.

Author: Ella Crenshaw

My Love of Museums

I have loved museums for as long as I can remember. As a kid, my mom took me to all kinds of museums: art, history, military, you name it. My favorite museum, though, was the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. Even though I didn’t move to Oklahoma until last year, my mom is from Moore. Every Christmas and summer vacation we would make sure to stop by the dinosaur museum in Norman. My family is also Native American, so that combined with my love of museums has fueled my passion for wanting to work on repatriation efforts and study archaeology.

Intern Emily Wagnon Repackaging Faunal Bone

I’m a senior at the University of Oklahoma, majoring in Anthropology and minoring in Native American Studies. In the Fall 2017, I am extremely lucky to be an intern in the archaeology collections at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History (SNOMNH). I’m even able to receive school credit as part of my degree. If you’re an OU student, you can learn more about student internships here. Interning at the museum has been an amazing opportunity for me to learn about preservation, archaeology, and working with tribes, as well as getting an insight into the ethical and legal issues that are going on in the museum community right now. A lot of the collections that I have had the opportunity to work with involve NAGPRA.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, was enacted in 1990 as a response to the millions of indigenous remains and associated funerary objects that are held in museum collections across the United States. Many of these artifacts were obtained by illegal means, and NAGPRA creates a legal channel for ancestral remains and burial goods to be rightfully repatriated back to their tribes.

The SNOMNH has protocols in place to ensure we are as careful, meticulous, and respectful as possible. As an intern, I got the chance to help create some of these protocols. We protect the privacy and sanctity of the tribes and tribal artifacts we work with, and ensure that we keep a careful record of the status and location of every artifact so each object has its cultural and/or preservation needs met. Part of this process includes faunal and human remains. It is important for every fragment in the collection to be analyzed to ensure all human remains are identified and separated from the faunal material. To expedite this process, I created a station where staff and volunteers can log faunal (animal) bones that need to be analyzed by the bioarchaeologist on staff.

Faunal Analysis Staging Area


It is important for repatriation (explore what that is here) that we have every single bone and object in a collection analyzed so that nothing is missing when the collection is repatriated. Once the bones have been analyzed, they are placed back with the rest of their collection if they are faunal, or moved back to the archaeology department’s restricted NAGPRA area if they are not. Being involved in the process of creating procedures gave me skills and an insight into why the museum works the way it does.

This internship has truly been an incredible learning experience. I’ve worked before in the front of the house for a museum, but to be able to work behind the scenes and see how we are able to take care of artifacts as they make their way from boxes to exhibits, or more importantly, back to their homes, is a joy. I hope to continue working in the field of archaeology, and this experience is one that I will be able to look back on for years and years to come. If you want to learn more about the museum and its collections, please consider volunteering for the SNOMNH at this link.

Author: Emily Wagnon

Gaining Control Over the Legacy Collections

Legacy Collections in the Archaeology Department

Of the over 10 million artifacts, objects, and specimens held at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History (SNOMNH), over 6 million of those are in the archaeology department, the largest in the museum. When processing collections, difficult projects are sometimes laid aside to facilitate the processing of a greater number of collections. Other times, a project is simply forgotten about after a staff member leaves. These collections and materials left out and unprocessed are called legacy collections. Legacy collections are problematic because important finds can remain undiscovered, collections needing special preservation can deteriorate as they wait to be processed, and materials that should be returned to native tribes are easy to lose track of in the confusion. With large and numerous collections, and new materials being acquired through donations and field collections, it can be extremely difficult for museums to keep from getting behind. Many museums across the country face this same problem. The growing amount of legacy collections is one of the major contributors to the archaeological curation crisis.


In Fall, 2017, I interned in the archaeology department at the SNOMNH and worked on creating an inventory of the materials in the legacy collections, in addition to completing shelving processes for a few of the collections left unfinished by previous interns. I went through the shelves stacked with boxes and bags of artifacts, recording information about what the collections contained, where they were located, and important identifying information for the museum’s database, such as the site numbers (where they were originally found). Many times, I had to search the databases using the site numbers attached to artifacts in order to find the collection to which they belonged. One of my favorite collections had been held in a copy paper box on my desk, and was full of artifacts in plastic sandwich bags. The collection contained some really cool artifacts, including an 11 inch knife whose wooden handle had rotted away, a small metal bell with it’s clapper, several bags of different kinds of bullets and shells, animal jawbones with teeth still attached, and some very pretty stone tool flakes.

Highlights from the Vera McKellipis Collection

The next issue was that the legacy collections at the SNOMNH needed to be organized. Replica cast material was mixed with other educational and research collections, making it difficult to prioritize and overwhelming to manage.  There wasn’t control over what was in the legacy collections, and no one knew the entirety of what they contained. Important research material could be available if only people knew where to find it.

In addition to that, there is great concern of finding material subject to NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) within the legacy collections, such as human bone and associated funerary objects.  These materials must be prepared for return to native tribes, as part of the museums grants dictate.  This is such a concern that a large part of the archeology department is dedicated to dealing with NAGPRA and the processes of repatriating the materials. The interns of Spring 2017 found and had to correctly manage two different NAGPRA materials from two different collections.

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The inventory and protocols I created will to be used by the museum to keep track of both existing collections and new arrivals. I assigned section numbers to the shelves so the materials in the inventory can be efficiently located. I divided the collections by collection type (Research, Teaching, or Cast (replicas)), and I also gathered the all the NAGPRA materials and placed them together in their own area on the shelves so they can be addressed first.


Overall, it has been a rewarding experience, and I am happy to have made some contribution to clearing up the issue of the legacy collections at the SNOMNH.



Author: Wynne Clark

The Future is Bright

When I first declared my double major in Anthropology and Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, I knew I wanted to work with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) but I wasn’t quite sure how.

As an undergrad about to graduate, the future can be uncertain. When I first declared my double major in Anthropology and Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, I knew I wanted to work with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) but I wasn’t quite sure how. Being an indigenous student, I had been frustrated that the NAGPRA inventory process can take so long, I wanted to see change and I was convinced that I would be one of the people to bring change to the legislation in the future. Until this semester everything I had learned about NAGPRA had been theoretical, I knew how the process worked but I had never seen anything outside of a classroom. I began interning at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History as a way to put my last 4 years to the test. I wanted to see if this was really what I wanted to do with my life. In a way, I was on a quest to right the wrongs of the past, to be the ideal Anthro/NAS student. While I still wish to continue work with NAGPRA I have learned that issues such as repatriation and NAGPRA inventory are not as clear cut as one would assume, and that a “great quest” is not the way in which to go about working towards change.

Interns Ash Boydston and Emily Wagnon make a final check on the contents of an Archaeology collection box before re-shelving.

I have been humbled by my experience here at the Sam Noble. The first time I handled human remains, I had to take a moment to myself afterwards to fully comprehend the amount of responsibility I had to not only the tribe, but to the person this once was as well. I had an idea of what to expect from my classes, but lectures and study sessions cannot compare to the real thing. After being a part of the process, I now understand just why doing NAGPRA inventory can take so long. There is a diligence that must be adhered to. In order to ensure that the Sam Noble Museum is up to NAGPRA standards and is fostering the best environment possible for indigenous relations, each step of the process must be meticulous. In order to move forward in an ethically responsible way tribes must be consulted on how they wish for their ancestors remains to be handled, and the Sam Noble Museum must listen to these requests. Is it not the spirit of NAGPRA to form relationships based on mutual respect and trust?


NAGPRA was, and remains a victory for native peoples, but NAGPRA’s journey cannot be over just yet. There are still many things to be examined and re-worked. One issue in particular that has stuck out to me is that of “Culturally Unidentifiable” remains. In the article NAGPRA and the Problem of “Culturally Unidentifiable” Remains: The Argument for Human Rights Framework by Rebecca Tsosie, she discusses the historical and legal contexts surrounding “Culturally Unidentifiable” indigenous remains. She examines the “competing interests” of tribes and scientists when ancient remains are under debate. Much of the argument over “Culturally Unidentifiable” remains relies on the “existence of an identifiable earlier group”. The simple problem with identification through anyone other that the actual tribe, is that tribes have not always identified by the standards that the US government has set forth in the past 200-300 years. To many tribes these remains are not “Culturally Unidentifiable”, these remains are their ancestors. The use of a colonized system to determine who may belong to what people, and not allow the people to determine for themselves who is a member is continued colonization that was intended to be address with NAGPRA.

NAGPRA has done considerable good work and has served as a stepping stone in the right direction for building ethical relationships with tribal peoples, but like all legislation it is not without flaws and should be considered for amendments. We have seen many laws amended and given additions to make the understanding and jurisdiction more clear, and while NAGPRA has undergone amendments and changes, it is still not as all encompassing as one would hope. We are fast approaching the 30 year anniversary of NAGPRA, and I feel it is time to re-examine NAGPRA’s reaches and consider ways in which to make certain details of the legislation involving “Culturally Unidentifiable” remains more clear in order to ensure the best protections and protocols are in place.

Author: Ash Boydston