Revising NAGPRA

Rex Dalton provides an update on the latest attempt to revise NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act):

Under a new proposal, the bones at museums, universities and federal facilities across the nation could be given to Native American tribes now living in the area from which the remains were excavated, even if the skeletons are not culturally identifiable to the tribes.


This would be a significant change in the way NAGPRA is currently enforced. As it stands now cultural affiliation has to be identified before remains and artifacts can be repatriated – that is what the Kennewick lawsuit was about. Advocates seeking the revisions argue that this is a natural progression of the NAGPRA process. Opponents argue that:

But major scientific organizations strongly dispute this view, calling the move “illegal” because it goes beyond the Congressional law, and a “divisive” manoeuvre that may shatter decades of working relationships between scientists and tribes. [bolding mine - afarensis] “The rules would be disastrous,” says Phillip Walker, an anthroplogist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. A former member of NAGPRA’s seven-person review committee, Walker helped prepare the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) comments.

I have to say that I am somewhat sympathetic to this latter view. The relationship between anthropologists and Native Americans has been contentious and difficult for quite a while. This comes at a time when anthropologists are learning to actually talk to people rather than just studying them and has the potential to seriously set back and impair the progress being made.
Dalton’s article goes on to say:

The AAPA says that the proposal would allow the return of almost any skeleton, even those used in medical schools, would greatly hinder anatomical teaching, and would eliminate comparative material for studies. Many of the specimens are among the oldest, offering data on the continent’s first humans.

It might also deter people from specializing in North American archaeology and anthropology resulting in less protection for archaeological sites…
Update 1: Kambiz has some thoughts on the subject as well. Following up on something Kambiz said, skeletons are found in Anasazi and Pueblo trash middens as well.

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4 Responses

  1. I’m sympathetic to the point of view(if there is one), that (a) the Native American voice needs to he heard in these matters, and their customs and history need to be respected, and (b)that archaeologists and others wno may be in a position to mediate between Native Americans and the rest of the world,should be actively encouraged to talk and cooperate with any Native American groups they’re working with.
    This would be a far cry from the sort of thing that used to happen, where anthropologists and others used to just come in, “study” the people, take whatever they thought they needed for their “studies”, and move on. Which did nobody any good. but this current proposed NAGPRA revision doesn’t sound like it advances much of anything, either. OTOH, there are a lot of ins and outs that I don’t know about either.
    Anne G

  2. I posted to the link an explanation from my own perspective (it’s awaiting moderation).
    Simplified, “joke” version of the distrust is,
    Never trust a white man with something he wants you to sign.

  3. I agree with Anne Gilbert and her comments, we must open up the conversation. Those interested in the new wording, there is a post on the Indigenous Issues Today news blog about this as well.

  4. But we did open up the conversation. NAGPRA originated via conversation with Native Americans. NAGPRA was very contentious and along the way anthropologists and Native Americans were learning to consider each others goals and needs. This new revision threatens to undo all that and put anthropologists and Native Americans on opposite sides of the fence again.

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