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Old 03-29-2006, 04:56 PM   #1
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Exclamation On Burial and Repatriation

On Burial and Repatriation

Nothing more than cultural and ethnic prejudice had to do with the remains of about 18,500 American Indians warehoused in the Smithsonian Institution. Nothing more than cultural and ethnic prejudice has had to do with the stockpiling of numerous American Indian artifacts, many of a sacred nature, in museums. With the case of American Indian remains, the excuse had been that they were priceless in archaeological/anthropological research. With indigenous artifacts, the plea was for preservation; that they were priceless and irreplacable. Which is a bottom line for both issues, that bones were considered priceless and irreplacable for the scientific data they could eventually yield, and that cultural items were also priceless and irreplacable as the cultural remains of bygone peoples and dead lifestyles.

That remains might be sacred, and artifacts might be irreplaceable to indigenous populations didn't much count. Didn't count because of cultural and ethnic prejudice which decided bones and artifacts were somehow more important to people whose relationship to them was not of blood but study and archiving.

Adding insult to injury is the notion that indigenous populations (if acknowledged they were still around) didn't comprehend the value of the cultural items that were finding their way into the hands of collectors and curators and were more than ready to release them. While it is true that museums did preserve belongings which might have otherwise been lost, not only were missionaries forbidding spiritual practices, laws were implemented that mandated a change in lifestyle, rendering former ways of living illegal.

How better a way to illustrate the demise of the American Indian and the absolute success of European colonialism to Euro Americans than to host a "respectful" display of American Indian artifacts in museums? Here is what was, which is forever gone, and which we can know only through its relics. And museums being erroneously grasped by the American public as belonging to all, their contents belonging to all, thus also comprehended American Indian cultural items and bones as belonging to them. They might never see those bones, but they belonged to them. They might have to pay to see the cultural items, but they belonged to them. They might never have the money to visit a museum, but the museum was theirs, it belonged to the public, and thus did the archived and displayed American Indian artifacts belong to them.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 was an attempt to correct some of these abuses. Helping to pave the way was the Vermillion Accord, an agreement between archaeologists and indigenous peoples at the 1989 World Archaeological Conference in Vermillion, South Dakota, which was a reach for ethical archaeology.

The Vermillion Accord advocated a significant change from, at least, an attitude which had previously afforded archaeologists carte blanche so that they operating with no restrictions. It promoted:

1. Respect for the mortal remains of the dead shall be accorded to all, irrespective of origin, race, religion, nationality, custom and tradition.

2. Respect for the wishes of the dead concerning disposition shall be accorded whenever possible, reasonable and lawful, when they are known or can be reasonably inferred.

3. Respect for the wishes of the local community and of relatives or guardians of the dead shall be accorded whenever possible, reasonable and lawful.

4. Respect for the scientific research value of skeletal, mummified and other human remains (including fossil hominids) shall be accorded when such value is demonstrated to exist.

5. Agreement on the disposition of fossil, skeletal, mummified and other remains shall be reached by negotiation on the basis of mutual respect for the legitimate concerns of communities for the proper disposition of their ancestors, as well as the legitimate concerns of science and education.

6. The express recognition that the concerns of various ethnic groups, as well as those of science are legitimate and to be respected, will permit acceptable agreements to be reached and honoured.

NAGPRA set out to establish definitions of burial sites, cultural affiliation, cultural items, associated and unassociated funerary objects, sacred objects, cultural patrimony, indian tribes, museums, Native Americans and Native Hawaiians, right of possession and tribal land. It formulated guides and priorites concerning the ownership or control of Native American cultural items excavated or discovered on Federal or tribal lands after the date of enactment of the act. NAGPRA provided guides concerning the intentional excavation and removal of Native American human remains and objects on Federal or tribal land, as well as for the inadvertent discovery of Native American remains and objects on Federal or trial lands, and established process in assisting federal agencies and museums in the determination of the appropriate Native American group responsible for disposition of various human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and materials of cultural patrimony. It requires that all museums make an inventory of relevant items, stipulating that geographical and cultural affiliation be identified if possible, and that upon request from a tribe a museum or federal agency would provide documentation and repatriate materials if "appropriate." NAGPRA encourages Native American human remains, graves and ritual objects located on federal and tribal land to be protected in situ; and in cases where in place preservation is not possible, or if archaeological excavation is necessary for planning or research, or if the remains are inadvertently discovered, then consultation is necessary prior to excavation under an Archaeological Resources Protection Act permit.

The ethics advanced in the Vermillion Accord, and NAGPRAs guides are a great improvement over the former situation, but there remain significant problems (as observed with the bitter controversy aroused by the Kennewick Man). What makes for "appropriate" repatriation? How is "necessary" planning or research determined? What burials are safe against the Federal government's right of emminent domain? How to enforce NAGRPA when BIA archaeologists are sympathetic to Old School archaeology and ignore the entreaties and concerns of "Traditionalist" American Indians? How to avoid the mess such as had at North Point when, despite oral accounts of burials, construction work was begun and the bones that were uncovered were moved (in violation of NAGPRA) and construction work continued--in other words, how to enforce NAGPRA when oral history is given virtually no weight?

Not to mention that NAGPRA only covers Federal land and tribal land. Some states have laws concerning burials and repatriation, but a number do not. Looting of sacred and burial sites is rampant, penalities amounting to a slap on the hand. Private land owners have virtually nothing (outside common decency) to deter them from doing whatever they please.

The article by George Johnson, "Indian Tribes' Creationists Thwart Archeologists", at is illustrative of various points of twisted thinking that prevent non-indigenous peoples, or those whose faith is Science, from understanding the views of Traditionalist American Indians on these issues. The lament is that NAGPRA process disrupts and postpones work and that Repatriation is about to put archaeology out of business. It equates American Indian Traditionalists with Christian Creationists, the connotation being that respect for Indian burials is reverse racism and that if Christian Creationists are not given say over scientific process then why should American Indian Traditionalists? American Indian Traditionalists and oral histories are given as being "anti-intellectual" and that through NAGRPA Indians are seen as having a revealed wisdom that "is not to be questioned or investigated"--implying, of course that only science is unquestionably accurate and the ultimate source of "wisdom". It reports, "Indians in the long run are the biggest losers. It's their history that's being destroyed."

How so? How is the history of the American Indian being destroyed by reburial of remains? Wouldn't that history be more imperiled by adopting Euro scientific conceits and ignoring Traditional views of sacredness? How is the "scientific importance" of skeletons (stressed in the article) greater than their sacred importance?

The engine running science has tended to be, "If it can be done then we should do it," and that no one should be able to say otherwise. Sacrificing wisdom for knowledge, science does not readily accept that knowledge and wisdom may be had in taboos, just as money does not readily accept that there is profit to be had in not harnessing every being and thing as a plough horse valuable only in its ability to turn a dollar.

Matters of money and science may occupy the top rungs of the ladder in Euro American culture, but they do not in Traditional American Indian culture.

But perhaps most important, and overlooked is that burial and repatriation issues are not so much a matter of religion versus science but Nation to Nation relations. The issues have less to do with religion versus science than one culture assuming its views are superior to another culture's and determining that Government to Government relations should be put on the back burner where science is concerned. That Johnson's article reports, "Under the repatriation act, who gets the bones is often being determined not by scientific inquiry but by negotiation between local tribes and the federal agencies that administer the land where the remains are found", demonstrates just this.
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