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common ground

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
Fall/Winter 1995, vol. 7(3)

Online Archive

*  The Reality of Repatriation

(photo) Edward Halealoha Ayau, Hawaiian heritage activist.

"Until the 1960s, Indian children grew up playing "Cowboys and Indians," and more than likely, they wanted to be the cowboys. They never wanted to be anthropologists, however, and today there are less than 70 Indians in the profession."

Rosita Worl

by Francis P. McManamon

The repatriation of Native American remains and funerary objects has become prominent in the past 20 years. The intense convictions of many Native Americans have been magnified by sympathy from other Americans who share the belief that curation is not appropriate treatment for the dead. These forces have accelerated what might have been a longer-term evolution in the relationship between American Indians, archeologists, and museum professionals. One outcome has been the dramatically increased power of native groups over the disposition and treatment of remains and related artifacts. This new reality requires archeologists and others to work on more equal footing with Native Americans than has been the case in the past.

The history of relationships between archeologists and the Native Americans has not been marked by cooperation, mutual respect, or clear and frequent communication. In its early years, during the 19th century, archeology supported the stereotype of American Indians then current. Scholars tended to discount the substantial achievements evident in the archeological record. The plundering of Indian graves in the interest of craniology and phrenology amply illustrates the absence of consideration for the Native Americans of the time. Modern Indians have effectively exploited this sordid chapter o obtain explicit legal protection for unmarked graves.

Fortunately the profession evolved. Today, archeologists not only employ more scientific methods, but also seek to use the archeological record to show how past cultures dealt with problems not unlike those that our society faces today. The material and organizational accomplishments of ancestral Native Americans are admired now.

So, it is ironic that many archeologists have yet to reach out to the very public most connected to that past--contemporary Native Americans. Even more ironic given the fact that, because of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and other laws, archeologists must consult with Indian tribes and other native groups over a host of issues.

Granted, there are decades of mistrust to overcome--a serious challenge to archeologists who must make up for past failures, as well as lost time. However, there is no doubt about the potential importance of archeological investigations to Native Americans.

Although some tribes and advocacy groups have disavowed archeology and its interpretations, others have embraced them. The Makah, Navajo, and Zuni, among others, have had archeological staff in their cultural resource programs for years. Recent times have witnessed widespread interest in such programs as well as in cultural centers, language retention, and other activities related to cultural preservation. Increasingly, American Indians seek technical information and training in preserving archeological and ethnographic resources, as well as act as instructors themselves. National Park Service courses in curation, interpretation, preservation, and ethnography have all been well attended by Native Americans.

Clearly, archeologists and Native Americans share the same goals--understanding the past and preserving the remains related to it. How can they foster cooperation? First, by improving communication--among organizations, and perhaps more importantly, among individuals. Second, by clearly and calmly articulating the value of different approaches and how they benefit the other party. Third, by being neither patronizing nor timid in their relationships. And finally, by committing to working together for the long term.

Some critics note that there has been a lot more talk promising cooperation than actual payoff. Acknowledging the truth in this sentiment, it is encouraging that even Indian activists and scholars--such as Vine Deloria and Roger Echo-Hawk, writing no less in American Antiquity and the SAA Bulletin (both published by the Society for American Archaeology)--have identified areas in which cooperation between archeologists and Indians would lay the groundwork for future collaborations.

Deloria suggests that archeological methods could be helpful in locating and preserving traditional sacred sites. Echo-Hawk calls for archeologists and Indians to reconcile archeological data and native oral traditions, which he believes would enrich everyone's understanding of America's ancient history.

Archeologists have displayed the full range of responses to repatriation, from an attitude of "It's about time" to claims that it signals the end of archeology. Clearly it represents not the end but the chance for a new beginning.

Francis P. McManamon is Chief, Archeology Program, and Departmental Consulting Archeologist, National Park Service, Department of the Interior.