The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian was established by an act of Congress in 1989, Public Law 101-185, as "a living memorial to Native Americans and their traditions". The creation of the museum brought together the collections of the Museum of the American Indian in New York City, founded in 1922, and the Smithsonian Institution.
The Smithsonian opened the doors to the NMAI's first facility, the George Gustav Heye Center, in lower Manhattan in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House and packed materials in the MAI's Bronx research center to be transferred to Maryland for a new research, repatriation, and storage facility, The building on the Washington DC National Mall was completed and opened in 2004.
The National Museum of the American Indian Act also required that human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony be considered for repatriation to tribal communities, as well as objects acquired illegally. As of October 2011, the Smithsonian has returned 5,619 individuals, 182,553 funerary objects, and 52 sacred objects and/or objects of cultural patrimony.