Repatriation, Religion, and Rights

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It is early, just after dawn. A bioarchaeologist (an archaeologist specializing in studying the skeletal remains of those found in archaeological sites) wishes to start her research on a group of skeletal remains, but before she can take out her calipers, she is stopped. “No, you can’t handle those individuals,” she is told. When she asks why, the response is that only men can handle and study the remains of warriors!

At another site, archaeologists stop excavating where a line is drawn in the sand, although the other side holds far more intriguing relics. Beyond the line, they are told, they may cause spiritual disturbances, which will lead to danger. Thus they are impeded from further excavation.

A group of professors and curators sit around a conference table to start a meeting, but this meeting is different — it will start and end with a prayer that is in a language none of them understands, and the words will not be translated. Secrecy is important to those saying the prayer. But that’s OK, because these professors and curators are used to not understanding what is being said. When conducting research or curating remains, all matters relevant to these skeletal collections are discussed first with religious leaders and consultants, who insist on secrecy, in this same unknown language. The religious leaders or consultants will then relay only the information that they want the professors and curators to know.

Beyond the line, they are told, they may cause spiritual disturbances, which will lead to danger.

A sigh of relief comes over two coauthors who have just finished a paper on their study of a skeletal collection. They are certain of publication, since they already have had the paper approved by religious leaders and no “inappropriate” hypotheses have been tested. Yet the paper needs further approval. They are reprimanded and told to exclude such insensitive words as “cranium” and “burial.”

Where are we? Is this anthropology as attempted in a theocracy, such as Iran or Tibet? No, we are in the USA and these are the effects of NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act).

NAGPRA, a federal law that enables Native American tribes to prevent excavations and to rebury skeletal remains regardless of their affiliation to the tribe, was enacted in 1990. Anthropologists were crucial in providing support for NAGPRA and viewed it as a human rights law that helped to right the wrongs of the past. Anthropologists believed that NAGPRA would be good for the science and would result only in the loss of remains from culturally identified or affiliated collections, which consisted of about 10% of the collections. These are collections for which a reasonable link can be made to a federally recognized tribe.

In 2013, however, culturally unaffiliated remains and artifacts became available for reburial too. This change will likely result in all collections of Native American remains disappearing from museum and university shelves within 50 years (Gonzalez and Marek-Martinez 2015 SAA Archaeological Record). In general, anthropologists were against this move — but they should have seen it coming, since NAGPRA is not a human rights law but a religious law.

Native American religious leaders claimed victory when NAGPRA was passed, and it is easy to understand why: traditional religious leaders are required in the committees of NAGPRA, creation myths can be used to determine affiliation, each NAGPRA meeting starts and ends with an indigenous prayer, consultations revolve around demands to include blessings or other religious activities in archaeological work. For instance, Kurt Dongoske (1996 American Indian Quarterly) noted that while collaborating with the Hopi, he worked with priests and religious societies to ensure that the research was sensitive to their needs.

Some anthropologists acknowledge the importance of religion in NAGPRA and bemoan that science is too involved in NAGPRA-mandated procedures. For example, Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (2010 Anthropology News), lamented that the NAGPRA committees are too science-oriented and hoped that removing the affiliation requirement to repatriate or rebury remains would help solve this issue!

Others have argued that perhaps scientifically-oriented anthropologists and repatriation-oriented Native Americans can find common ground (e.g., Clifford 2004 Current Anthropology; Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Ferguson 2004 Journal of Social Archaeology). These anthropologists don’t seem to accept the fact that many religious adherents argue that research is harmful — it damages the spirits (Walker 2000 Biological Anthropology of the Human Skeleton). This is like arguing about evolution with a creationist; it is usually futile. Native Americans have even adopted the creationist catchphrase about evolution — “it’s just a theory” — to dismiss research published on migrations into the Americas (Weaver 1997 Wicazo Sa Review).

Other anthropologists go a step further and claim that collaboration can infuse our field with new perspectives when oral tradition and scientific evidence are placed on equal footing (e.g, Goldstein and Kintigh 1990 American Antiquity; Zimmerman 2000 Repatriation Reader: Who Owns American Indian Remains? , University of Nebraska Press). Oral tradition is basically code for creation myths and other religious stories, many of which are inherently racist. For example, one alternative theory promoted by multiple Native American religions is polygenesis, which means different biological origins for different people. Polygenesis was disproved by Charles Darwin over a hundred years ago. Polygenesis, of course, has often been used as a way to explain why one group of people is better than another group of people. It was promoted, for instance, by colonialists in the late 17th and early 18th centuries who, predictably, thought they were better than the people they encountered in their journeys.

This is like arguing about evolution with a creationist; it is usually futile.

Some readers may think that even if NAGPRA is a religiously supported law, this is so discipline-specific that it will not affect our ability to conduct scientific research in general. But NAGPRA is the legal ramification of a greater repatriation ideology, which must be stopped in order to protect scientific and academic freedom. Repatriation ideology consists of attempts to constrain research by giving control to people who place religion above science. Most essentially, according to repatriation activists, Native American elders’ narratives should be treated as truths and that scientific conclusions on the past should defer to religious views. Repatriation ideology has seeped into the study of genetics, as when official Havasupai leaders sued genetics researchers for using freely-given blood samples to study schizophrenia, inbreeding, and ancient human population migration. Repatriation ideology has led to censorship (e.g., Anyon et al. 1996 SAA Bulletin; Gonzalez 2015 SAA Archaeological Record). For example, an Arizona professor who wrote a book on Native American religion has been prevented from publishing her work because tribal leaders hired lawyers to block publication (Mihesuah 1993 American Indian Culture and Research Journal). And repatriation ideology has shaped which topics can be studied. Ferguson (1996 Annual Review of Anthropology) notes that to gain access to collections, anthropologists should avoid topics that Native Americans — or, more properly, their self-nominated representatives — may find offensive, such as religion, power, gender, and treatment of the dead!

In order to protect science, both the biological sciences and the social sciences, we need to reject the intrusion of the supernatural, including creation stories and other religious traditions, into any scientific research.

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  • Anyon, Roger, T.J. Ferguson, Loretta Jackson, and Lillie Lane. 1996. “Native American Oral Traditions and Archaeology.” SAA Bulletin 14 (2): 14–16.
  • Clifford, James. 2004. “Looking Several Ways: Anthropology and Native Heritage in Alaska.” Current Anthropology 45 (1): 5–30.
  • Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Chip. 2010. “Remains Unknown: Repatriating Culturally Unaffiliated Human Remains.” Anthropology News 51 (3): 4–8.
  • Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Chip, and Thomas J. Ferguson. 2004. “Virtue Ethics and the Practice of History: Native Americans and Archaeologists along the San Pedro Valley of Arizona.” Journal of Social Archaeology 4 (1): 5–27.
  • Dongoske, Kurt E. 1996. “The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act: A New Beginning, Not the End, for Osteological Analysis — A Hopi Perspective.” American Indian Quarterly 20 (2): 287–96.
  • Ferguson, Thomas J. 1996. “Native Americans and the Practice of Archaeology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 25 (1): 63–79.
  • Goldstein, Lynne, and Keith Kintigh. 1990. “Ethics and the Reburial Controversy.” American Antiquity 55 (3): 585–91.
  • Gonzalez, Sara L. 2015. “Of Homelands and Archaeology: Indigenous, Collaborative Approaches to Archaeology with two California Tribal Communities.” SAA Archaeological Record 15 (1): 29–32.
  • Gonzalez, Sara L., and Ora Marek-Martinez. 2015. “NAGPRA and the Next Generation of Collaboration.” SAA Archaeological Record 15 (1): 11–14.
  • Mihesuah, Devon A. 1993. “Suggested Guidelines for Institutions with Scholars Who Conduct Research on American Indians.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 17 (3): 131–39.
  • Walker Phillip L. 2000. “Bioarchaeological Ethics: A Historical Perspective on the Value of Human Remains.” In Biological Anthropology of the Human Skeleton, edited by M. Anne Katzenberg and Shelley R. Saunders, 3–40. New York: Wiley-Liss.
  • Weaver, Jace. 1997. “Indian Presence with No Indians Present: NAGPRA and Its Discontents.” Wicazo Sa Review 12 (2): 13–30.
  • Zimmerman, Larry J. 2000. “A New and Different Archaeology? With a Postscript on the Impact of the Kennewick Man Dispute.” In Repatriation Reader: Who Owns American Indian Remains, edited by Devon A. Mihesuah, 294–306. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

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