LAST fall, the Smithsonian Institution agreed to return nine objects that had been confiscated illegally by Canadian police from the Kwakiutl tribe of British Columbia in 1921.
This is part of a larger movement among American museums to repatriate human remains and objects of special religious importance to the Native American peoples from whom they were taken.
Critics, however, say the process is going much too slowly, even after the passage of two federal laws in 1989 and 1990 - one governing the Smithsonian Institution, and the other governing all federally funded museums. (Repatriation of the Kwakiutl objects was formally sought in 1985.)
At stake is not only the resting place for perhaps thousands of skeletal remains and ceremonial objects but also the religious freedom and cultural well-being of many Native Americans.
"We can't get on with the future until the past is resolved in some sort of equitable manner," says Suzan Harjo, a Cheyenne and Muscogee Indian who is president of the Morning Star Foundation, an Indian cultural-rights advocacy group in Washington, D.C. The 1990 law, she says, "at least lets us begin with a process that will return some of these items which have been stolen."
The laws create a mechanism not only for addressing longstanding grievances but also for opening doors to cultural awareness.
For example, the Makah people here on Washington's Olympic Penninsula will be combing through an inventory catalog from the Smithsonian to see if there are any objects that should be repatriated, says Joyce Morden, executive director of the Makah Cultural and Research Center.
Museums that receive federal funds are midway through a five-year inventory process of their own, mandated by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. They must catalog their collections and share the information with the tribes that might be interested.
Some observers say compliance with the law also promises to help museums learn more about their collections.
"The real core of this law is to develop the consultation process," says Timothy McKeown of the Interior Department's cultural resources division, which is implementing the law. "Both the tribes and the museums are going to benefit from that."
Meanwhile, the Interior Department must spell out regulations for implementing the 1990 law.
According to Ms. Harjo, officials have been "dragging their feet" since it was first written into law.
The regulations "were supposed to have been finalized a year ago," says Walter Echo-Hawk, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colo. "Congress has failed to appropriate a single dime to implement the act." But Mr. McKeown defends the time that has been spent, first by an Interior Department committee and then by a review committee of outsiders including museum officials and Native Americans: "Writing the regulation has been as complex as writing the legislation."
The Interior Department was almost ready to issue proposed regulations for public comment in January, McKeown says, but with the changing of the guard in the White House, action has been delayed.
"The clock's ticking on this and we've got to hustle," acknowledges Mr. McKeown. He says it is understandable that the new administration does not want to just rubber stamp the rules, but the Interior Department is seeking prompt action.
The law applies to human remains, objects needed for a still-practiced Native-American religion, and to "cultural patrimony" (objects of special historical or ongoing importance to the people).
In all cases, the tribe petitioning for the return of objects must prove a cultural affiliation with the objects in question.
It remains to be seen how broadly the law will be interpreted in practice. It is not intended to result in a dramatic cleaning out of museum shelves in any major way, Mr. Echo-Hawk says.
The Native American Rights Fund is seeking the return (to Oklahoma Pawnee Indians) of human remains sent to Washington by the Army after a battle. The Smithsonian has agreed to return 13 skulls so far, but the return of 30 more are pending, Echo-Hawk says.
In some cases, human remains will be reburied by descendents. A few tribes have decided not to seek repatriation of human remains, Harjo says.
In addition, some religious objects may remain in museums and be used by tribes on special occasions. A number of tribes, including the Makah, have their own museums.