Friday, June 27, 2008

Ancient Skeletons Returned to Indigenous Qawalangin Tribes of Alaska: NAGPRA Provides Positive Mechanism

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) has been covered on this site several times in the past. An article about attempts to change the plain language of NAGPRA was covered, as well as the Society for American Archaeology's stance on unidentified human remains. In fact, in a new book that just came out this month by Left Coast Press, the topic is extensively covered in terms of the Kennewick Man and ancient Native American skeletons: Kennewick Man: Perspectives on the Ancient One..

Most of these pieces cover the continuing struggle indigenous Native Americans have in recovering their ancestors and properly reburying them. However, not all instances of NAGPRA can be considered negative. In fact, there are more positive cases then negative ones. Below is a story about human remains that will be repatriated to the Qawalangin tribe in Alaska.

Human remains excavated from Unalaska and Amaknak Islands in the 1950s and '60s will soon be returned to the Qawalangin tribe under the provisions of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The 1990 law says bones and funerary items found on federal lands need to be offered back to their original families or tribes. Robert King in Anchorage coordinates the repatriation of bones.

"When you have remains that are hundreds and indeed thousand of years old, as in this case," King explains, "those specific genealogical connections are broken. So then it goes the next highest claimant who would have the priority. You might say the collective descendants, so in this case, the tribe."

The bones of ten individuals were excavated by a now deceased archaeologist from Michigan from Eider Point in the 1950s. Bone fragments from another individual were found on Amaknak Island in the 1960s, though records do not say by whom. Because the remains were found on then federal land, the federal government took possession of them.

"When the remains are returned, they become the private property of the tribe and so then the tribe at its own discretion can do whatever the tribe wishes to do with the remains," King says.

King says tribes often decide to rebury the bones. The Qawalangin tribe will take possession of the bones later this summer. Tribal representatives could not be reached for comment on their plans for the remains.

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orlando human remains cleanup said...

I wonder if this tribe even cares about human remains or if this is just some big PR thing. Some religions only look at remains as an empty shell with no significant value.

Peter N. Jones said...

I personally don't know what significance the tribe attaches to these ancestors - but that is really none of my business. They are the ancestors of the Qawalangin indigenous peoples, and they should have the final decision as to how they are treated - not scientists, government officials, or outside folks. From the NAGPRA cases that I have worked on, as well as the with the indigenous peoples I have had the honor to know, I would say that the Qawalangin care very much about their relatives and would want to continue to honor them from now into the future.

Brian BroadRose said...

As is the case with many groups throughout the world, the Qawalangin peoples prefer to let their ancestors rest in peace. I wonder if those that want to keep the remains in boxes and labs even care about them, or if this is just a "PR thing", a panicked knee-jerk reaction at the loss of control. Who really thinks these dead folk are "empty shells", and who decides what is significant about them. The anthros or the descendants?

Peter N. Jones said...

Excellent points Brian, and I couldn't agree more. Historically archaeologists and other scientists have had control over skeletons and what is considered significant about them. However, this is changing - although perhaps not fast enough - and there are more and more people who are realizing that these ancestors deserve the same respect we give to living people. Sitting in a box in a museum is not an honorable way to be treated. I know I wouldn't want to be placed in a box and forgotten. Let us hope we can continue to return ancestors to their proper place.

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