Thursday, June 25, 2009

Repatriation, NAGPRA, and The Ongoing Battle Over Cultural Patrimony

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA; 25 U.S.C. § 3001 et seq) has been one of the more controversial laws to be passed in the last quarter century. The principal reason is that NAGPRA is the guiding legislation in the United States for all items of human origin found on federal or state lands, which currently consists of over 650 million acres (around 30% of the United States), all of which fall under the legislative purview of NAGPRA. Although this law was passed in 1990, and the final Rules were established in 1995, a struggle over "who owns the past" has continuously been fought. A recent article published in Indian Country Today illustrates this struggle and how the battle over "who owns the past" continues, a battle that often attempts to deny (or not recognize) Native American history, identity, and affiliation.

What is troubling about this story, and the others you see in the media on an almost monthly basis, is that NAGPRA was supposed to be an example for other countries on how to deal with the massive amount of cultural patrimony and human ancestral remains stored in in museums, collections, and institutions. However, as other countries watch us continuously bicker and fight over "who owns the past", they are less and less likely to enact legislation similar to NAGPRA - legislation that had its heart in the right place. How are other countries to deal with their large holdings of ancestral human remains? How are they going to establish a system of repatriation? It is inevitable that indigenous peoples must fight scientists, museum officials, and others for their cultural patrimony and ancesters?

One of the benefits of NAGPRA was that it not only returned these "living" items back to the people who they belonged to, but it allowed scientists, museum officials, and others to study them in the process. It was supposed to be a sort of win-win for everyone. Study the item, take photos, identify its characteristics, catalog it, and then return it to the people who it belongs to. Instead, NAGPRA often results in the first four of those steps, but fails to act on its final promise - repatriation (obviously, this is a slight characterization as there are hundreds of positive examples that have come about because of NAGPRA, but the point still stands). Again, what are other countries supposed to do now that they have seen how NAGPRA leads to the spending of millions of dollars, power struggles, and divisiveness? What are our options?

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. - A complaint against the University of Massachusetts Amherst, claiming violations of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is under investigation and will be heard at a Review Committee meeting in the fall.

The complaint was filed jointly by Tribal Historic Preservation Officers Cheryl Andrews-Maltais of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, Aquinnah; John Brown III of the Narragansett Indian Tribe; and Sherry White of the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians in May 2008.

Andrews-Maltais has since been elected chairwoman of her tribe.

Sherry Hutt, NAGPRA program director, confirmed that the complaint is under investigation.

"That matter, to my knowledge, is under investigation so I couldn't comment on it until the investigation is completed."

The complaint will be heard by the NAGPRA Review Committee this fall, said White, who has been coordinating documentation from the three tribes.

"We've been working on this for years, trying to get UMass to repatriate the remains to us. Over the years, as the three tribes started learning what was there (at UMass Amherst) and realizing we were the only federally recognized tribes that could establish cultural affiliation, the three tribes came together and put in a claim for repatriation. Our case will be reviewed in the fall."

The complaint says that UMass Amherst has violated NAGPRA by failing to respond to the tribes' request for repatriation of human remains from the Connecticut River Valley that are in its possession, and failing to consult with the tribes.

The joint complaint also says the university failed to publish a complete inventory of the human remains and other items of cultural patrimony in its possession, and claims the remains from the Connecticut River Valley listed in its partial inventory are "culturally unaffiliated" even while admitting that the three tribes had a historical presence in and historical ties to the area, and that they are the only federally recognized tribes with standing to claim the remains.

You can read the rest of the story on Indian Country Today.

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