THOUSANDS of American-Indian artifacts that have been on display or in storage for decades at museums around the country are coming a step closer to being returned to the tribes that claim them.
The museums have been compiling an inventory of all human remains and funeral objects in their possession. They then submit the list to the government so the tribes can see what the museums have.
Repatriation will ensure that sacred objects are given proper treatment, says Russell Peters, president of the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Tribal Council in Massachusetts.
''Every time a construction site is started, when the bulldozers come in and move the earth, they uncover remains,'' says Mr. Peters, who is on the repatriation committee of the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
''The land has been taken from us and, in a sense, desecrated,'' he says.
''I think what this law is doing is serving notice to everybody that these sites, whenever they are uncovered, are sacred sites,'' he continues, ''and have to be dealt with in a sensitive and responsible way.''
The deadline for giving the inventories to the coordinating National Park Service was set by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. The museums and the tribes will decide later how and where the specified items will be returned.
Two years ago, museums faced a separate deadline for completing inventories of sacred objects and cultural items.
An estimated 3,000 museums and 700 tribes have become involved in the repatriation process, listing an estimated 2,700 human remains, 91,000 funerary objects, 235 sacred objects, and 16 objects of historical or cultural importance to particular tribes, according to the park service.
Among those cultural or historical objects, the Peabody museum has returned a wooden likeness of a Zuni war god to that New Mexico tribe, said Barbara Isaac, assistant director of the museum and coordinator of its repatriation efforts. The museum also returned a sacred pole to the Omaha tribe in 1989.
Categorizing the objects and determining their origin is an enormously complex and costly undertaking.
The Peabody Museum has some 8 million American Indian artifacts in its collection, one of the nation's largest, but only 5 percent to 10 percent are believed to fall into the categories specified in the 1990 act, Isaac said.
Karin Goldstein, curator of collections at Plimoth Plantation, said the museum had ''long since'' repatriated its human remains, but had recently been combing its records to identify burial objects.
Since American Indians often chose what items they wished to be buried with, burial items are not always easily identifiable, she said.
''We have axes found near a skull. Does that mean they're grave goods or were they just found the same day?'' she asked. She and other museum officials said they chose to list all questionable items so that the tribes could have the final say.
''Sacred can be in the eyes of the beholder,'' she said.
The Heard Museum in Phoenix, which was involved in developing the act, found about 20 sets of human remains and funerary objects among its 33,000 American Indian artifacts, registrar Deborah Slaney said.
''It really affects a small percentage of our collection,'' she said, adding that sacred and funeral items were removed from public display years ago.
Some anthropologists are loath to see skeletal remains returned for reburial when, they say, there is still much to be learned from them about such things as diet and disease.
That attitude toward the dead angers many Indians, said Peters of Mashpee tribe. He noted a song by Sioux singer Floyd Westerman, which says: ''Here come the anthros, hide your bones away. Here come the anthros on another holiday.''
Peters said the repatriation law is a reflection of respect that has been too long in coming.
''I think it's about time that a law like this was passed,'' he said, ''and I think the people of this country are beginning to respect the ways of the native people and their respect for the land and the earth.''