Monday, August 6, 2007

How has the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation (NAGPRA) Act Helped Anthropology?

Ever since the Native American Graves Protection and Repatiration Act (NAGPRA) was passed in 1990, and the subsequent rules were implemented in 1995, a fairly large body of literature has been written that either criticizes or praises its passage. The arguments over whether such a law has been properly implemented are a discussion that should be left to legal scholars. However, it is within the arena of anthropology that we can adequately discuss whether the law has been beneficial to the discipline or not. Because I tend to be both an optimist and a realist, I like to find the positive in any situation. Thus, in the argument over whether NAGPRA has been good for the discipline of anthropology or not, I look for positive results instead of fixating on what could have been. Three primary results that I see as positive effects on the discipline of anthropology are: increased communication, collaboration, and cooperation.

Communication between anthropological researchers, their institutions, and American Indian tribes has been greatly enhanced because of NAGPRA and its mandate. The opening of communication channels between these three entities has helped to break down single-sided approaches towards knowledge and how that knowledge should be put to use. This has meant that anthropologists have had to communicate with American Indians in terms of what are considered epistemic facts, how those facts can be validated, and the subsequent ontology those facts describe. In terms of contemporary anthropological theory and methods, NAGPRA has forced anthropology to relinquish its Foucaultian power claim on epistemology, and to open its epistemological doors to American Indian forms of knowing. Although this communication has not reached an acceptable level of openness and transparency (e.g., the poor epistemological weight given to oral traditions by some), NAGPRA has helped continue, and expand, a process many anthropologists began at an early date (see Jones and Stapp 2005).

Collaboration between anthropological researchers, their institutions, and American Indian tribes has also benefited as a result of NAGPRA. Such collaboration has taken place on all levels of inquiry and investigation, from the excavation and documentation of archaeological sites to the discussion and dialogue of what constitutes knowledge and how that knowledge is used to inform anthropological methods, theory, and policy. Furthermore, the level of collaboration between anthropologists and American Indian tribes has been deepened. Historically, anthropologists always “collaborated” with American Indian tribes in some form, though usually the form of collaboration was at the level of “data gatherer” and “data giver.” Now, however, because of NAGPRA anthropologists can no longer simply collaborate with American Indians in the form of data acquisition. Instead, the level of collaboration has taken on a much more holistic form whereby anthropologists and American Indian tribes collaborate together in determining appropriate topics of research, appropriate methods for investigating those topics, and appropriate policies and outcomes that result from the investigation of those topics.

Finally, NAGPRA has also benefited anthropology in facilitating cooperation between American Indian tribes, anthropologists, and their respective institutions by mandating that dialogue and compromise be reached not only in the stewardship of resources (including natural, intellectual, and other resources), but in the very foundations of what constitutes an appropriate epistemology and subsequent ontology in today’s globalized world. That is, through the cooperation that NAGPRA mandates between anthropologists and American Indian tribes, a newly emerging epistemology is taking shape, one that draws on the ancient wisdom of American Indians and their culture while also drawing on the scientific wisdom of anthropology and its culture.

Together, through communication, collaboration, and cooperation, NAGPRA has helped anthropologists and American Indian tribes take on the challenges that present themselves in a modern, globalized world. Challenges that could not be solved without the help of American Indian tribes and anthropologists working together.

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1 comment:

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