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common ground

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

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*  Symbol of a New Treaty

(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 Rosita Worl

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

With NAGPRA, Indians and anthropologists have the opportunity to reconcile their differences or redraw the old battle lines. The knowledge held by both parties will be central to the repatriation process, which promises to involve over 500 museums and institutions. If there is a cooperative stance, both Indians and anthropologists, and as a consequence the public, will benefit. If there is an adversarial position, expect a long, drawn-out fight in which both sides could suffer.

NAGPRA mandates a legislative resolution to the competing philosophies of Indians on the one side and museums and scientists on the other. Anthropologists argue that human remains and cultural objects have scientific and educational value, and therefore should be preserved. Indians contend that appropriating human remains violates the sanctity of the dead as well as the civil rights of the living. Indians maintain that alienating a tribe from its culture undermines its integrity and ability to survive.

In this battle, Congress ruled on the side of the Indians. However, Congress did not carte blanche mandate the return of native remains and objects. Indians must substantiate their claims.

Stated simply, the basic goals of anthropologists are to obtain, record, and transmit cultural knowledge. A general assumption is that they need access to cultural material to meet these objectives. By offering new alternatives, NAGPRA challenges this supposition.

Rather than lament the loss of access, anthropologists should see repatriation as an opportunity. Collaborative research between anthropologists and Indians could very well lead to broader, deeper insights into Native American societies. Not only that, such collaborations could introduce a new method in the field of anthropology, which has a history of evolving through such intellectual changes and shifts in methods.

To validate their claims, Indians have to provide substantial amounts of information. Undoubtedly, they will consult the anthropological literature, and in some instances see the need to correct it.

Some Indian groups have been the favorites of anthropologists, and much has been written about them. Others have been studied less. These tribes will, of necessity, require additional research to pursue their claims. Of course, they will interpret the research from their own perspective--how they view the world and the significance of objects in specific rites. While some might question their scientific objectivity, such interpretations have been lacking in the literature, and are bound to bring new insights and challenge earlier assumptions.

Information on claims must, of course, meet certain standards in order to withstand review by the repatriation offices of museums and agencies. Indians must prove that each funerary object, sacred object, and object of cultural patrimony was previously owned or controlled by their tribe or a tribal member. To support a claim they will need to describe ceremonies and the role of their religious ideologies. Indians must demonstrate communal ownership and what that means in terms of their traditional property laws.

These activities offer a unique opportunity to analyze sociocultural changes since European contact. Indians may be required to identify the forces that prevented the practice of traditional rituals, and describe the impact on their tribes.

The return and reintegration of cultural objects has untold consequences for renewal among tribes. In addition, the research required by the repatriation process will help us understand why these traditional cultures persist.

For anthropologists, repatriation could be an employment windfall. Not since the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which requires agencies to consider the cultural impacts of construction activities, has the field of anthropology been given such a boost.

The study of material culture will gain, not lose, in the process. Traditionally, anthropologists begin their research by analyzing a specific social or cultural phenomenon, with the role of material culture generally secondary or peripheral. The repatriation process, however, focuses on objects within their cultural setting--which is the essence of material culture.

Museums are undoubtedly developing their own procedures to act on repatriation requests. With limited resources on all sides it only makes sense to collaborate. Museums and anthropological associations may wish to cosponsor meetings with tribes to facilitate such collaborations.

NAGPRA symbolizes a new treaty of cooperation. A new era of close cooperation and fruitful understanding could lie just ahead.

Rosita Worl is a Tlingit from the Thunderbird Clan of Klukwan, Alaska. An anthropologist with the University of Alaska Southeast, she is curator of "Tlingit Clans and Corporations," a planned exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Worl also serves on the board of trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. For more information, contact her at SEALASKA Corporation, P0. Box 21454, Juneau, AK 99802, (907) 463-5012, fax (907) 586-1003.