Sunday, December 30, 2007

Indigenous People, Cultural Heritage, and Rights: Archaeology in Mexico

Indigenous peoples face a multitude of obstacles around the world - one of which is their rights concerning cultural heritage. In the US, there are numerous laws relating to the collection, excavation, and recovery of cultural heritage and archaeological artifacts (i.e., NAGPRA). Over the years, indigenous peoples of North America - Native Americans, First Nation peoples, and Native Alaskan and Hawaiian peoples - have gained access and rights concerning their cultural heritage. This is not the case in other countries.

In Mexico, the rights of indigenous peoples are not nearly as great, and they have little or no say over their cultural heritage. Mexican law is largely derived from Roman law, as reinterpreted by Spanish medieval law. In accordance with this, ownership of land is very different than in the US or other countries. The owner of the plot of land only owns the surface itself; whatever is under the surface is the property of the State. As such, almost all aspects of cultural heritage - palaeontological, archaeological, and historical patrimony - is owned by the federal government. The primary law in Mexico dictating this is the Federal Law on the Archaeological, Artistic, and Historic Monuments and Zones, which was implemented in 1972.

The Mexican federal arm that is responsible for managing the 34,789 known sites - and hypothesized 100,000+ sites - is the National Institute for Anthropology and History (INAH). Composed of four patrimonial councils - paleontology, archaeology, conservation, and historical monuments - the INAH oversees all archaeological and cultural heritage management in Mexico. The specific rules applied to archaeological research projects in Mexico are contained in the Disposiciones Reglamentarias para la Investigacion Arqueologica en Mexico (A copy can be obtained free of charge from the Consejo de Arqueologia, Moneda 16, Col. Centro, 06060 Mexico, D.F. Mexico (

As a result of this system of cultural heritage management, indigenous peoples of Mexico have little or no say in the management of their own history. Because archaeological artifacts and other cultural patrimony - even human remains - are the property of the State, the indigenous peoples of Mexico are being denied a role in their past, present, and future. Even though they are the acknowledge living descendants of the magnificent temples, buildings, sites, and cultural patrimony of Mexico, today's indigenous peoples - Maya, Nahuatl, Zapotec, Mixtec, Otomi, etc. - are not able to participate in the management of their own heritage.

Another component is that exacerbating this picture is that most archaeological projects carried out in Mexico today do not involve the local communities and indigenous groups who may have a connection to the site being excavated. As Nelly M. Robles Garcia noted in the SAA Archaeological Record (Vol. 7, #5, 2007), "However, the current tendency of projects submitted to the Council of Archaeology, whether by Mexicans or foreigners, is to virtually ignore that social context, treating sites as if they exist in a vacuum abstracted from any social reality. Only a few archaeologists live by choice in the communities where the archaeological sites are located. The majority of us prefer to spend the nights in more urban environments, where better services are available. With this preference for comfort we lose opportunities for a basic understanding of the peoples and cultures around us, and deny ourselves the chance to participate in richer anthropological experiences" (p. 30).

The indigenous peoples of the US have fought for many years to gain just basic rights when it comes to participating in the collection, management, and decipherment of their own cultural patrimony. This same fight now needs to be carried out in other countries. The indigenous peoples of the world should have a direct role in the management of each countries heritage - without them there would be little heritage to manage. Archaeologists, politicians, and others need to recognize this and include the local indigenous peoples in decisions regarding management of cultural heritage. If we do, not only will our understanding of the archaeological material be enriched, but so will the country's cultural heritage.

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