Thursday, May 8, 2008

Culturally Unidentified Human Remains, Indigenous Native American Peoples, and the Society for American Archaeology

In the March 2008 SAA Archaeological Record, an article by Keith W. Kintigh clearly articulated the Society for American Archaeology’s position concerning the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Usually such an article would mean little for indigenous peoples as the Record is primarily concerned with the field of archaeology – its methods, theories, and practice – then with the concerns of indigenous peoples or how archaeology impacts them. However, in this article Kintigh, former president of SAA and past chair of the Task Force on Reburial, discusses the Society’s position in terms of repatriation – especially the repatriation of unidentified human remains. This is the same category that the Ancient One (also known as the Kennewick Man) and many other ancient Native American human remains currently reside in.

A lot of talk, and several important books, have been written on the topic of repatriation, human remains, and their biological and cultural affiliation. Much of it has cast a negative light on the SAA and archaeologists, despite the fact that archaeologists and Native American tribes have been working collaboratively for several years across numerous projects.

In order, therefore, to help clear the picture up and to facilitate the continued dialogue between indigenous Native American peoples and archaeology, I have quoted the major points below from this article.

"The fundamental principle guiding all of SAA’s repatriation actions has not been, as critics would have it, to minimize repatriation, but instead to achieve the balance of traditional cultural interests and scientific interests that is at the core of SAA’s long-held policy (SAA Statement on the Treatment of Human Remains) that helped shape NAGPRA. More specifically, SAA’s position has been that the goal of NAGPRA is not repatriation, it is to codify the legal rights of reasonably closely related Native American groups to determine the disposition (which may or may not be repatriation) of the remains of their ancestors."

"SAA began submitting formal comments in 1995 and has done so on numerous occasions since then, by way of written statements to the NAGPRA Review Committee, through on-the-record comments at Review Committee meetings by authorized SAA representatives, and in the context of meetings and conversations with agency officials on both formal and unpublished draft rules. A review of this record shows a clear pattern of constructive comments directed toward balance and improving the recommendations."

Minutes of the NAGPRA Review Committee Meetings are available at the National Park Service NAGPRA site.

"The Review Committee spent more then six years developing a set of recommendations with regard to the disposition of cultural unidentified human remains. As noted in the SAA statement and comments, the proposed rule plainly does not reflect the balance contained in the NAGPRA Review Committee’s final “Principles of Agreement” on this issue. Indeed, in its most recent meeting the NAGPRA Review Committee, which has strong Native American representation, unanimously approved a motion expressing concern about the divergence of the proposed rule from its recommended Principles and seeking more time for comment and discussion of the issue."

It is apparent that much of the slandering towards archaeologists and indigenous peoples stems from the actions of a few - not the many. American archaeologists are working to protect the method of science, while at the same time becoming increasingly aware of the human aspect of their field and its impacts on living populations. Although the history of NAGPRA is full of contentions, I am glad to see the SAA attempt to recognize the importance of indigenous peoples voices - in this case Native Americans - when it comes to the repatriation of skeletons and human ancestors. What needs to happen now is further dialogues about what is culturally identifiable in terms of human remains, so that we can continue to repatriate indigenous Native American ancestors to their rightful resting place.

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Anonymous said...

I suggest caution when it comes to the SAA and repatriation. I think something that is very telling in Kintigh's article is his statement that they have never thought that NAGPRA is about repatriation. He is correct in this...the SAA's stated position on this, including from the time of the very first hearings on the law, has been that repatriation should occur in only the most restricted circumstances. They have absolutely no interest in the return of all ancestors to native peoples. Instead, they view NAGPRA as a way to divvy up research objects...the human remains that can be directly linked to specific families should be repatriated, all others (including the human remains that have no records attached to them and those that are associated with federally unrecognized tribes) should stay on museum shelves and be available for research.

Do not trust the SAA to be an ally for native voices when it comes to repatriation. They will not be...and I say this as a member of the SAA and someone who has some knowledge of their position.

Peter N. Jones said...

Excellent points Anonymous - I'd have to agree on almost all of them. I too am part of the SAA (have been for many years) and have been frustrated with their policy on NAGPRA and working with Native Americans. However, I do see some subtle shifts within the society, and hopefully the newer generation of archaeologists will have learned from their colleagues mistakes. It is sad that a professional organization still can't seem to understand that artifacts and skeletons are part of many Native Americans living traditions, being an important part of their cultural identity. By bringing these issues out to a wider audience, however, I do hope that we can slowly instigate change within the society and the larger culture. Not all archaeologists within the society agree with the society's stance on "culturally unidentified" human remains. Hopefully we can continue to change this and bring in Native voices into the NAGPRA process.

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