Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Disputes over Native-American remains

When we think of science & religion, we often think about monotheistic religions and the struggles over the questions of biological and cosmological origins. But there are many many different interactions taking place - such as the common ground over environmental protection, archaeological studies of religiously important sites, and disputes over the ownership of human remains and scared artifacts. The last one is particularly important for the US and this has a complex and tangled past.

This coming November 16th will mark the 20th anniversary of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The key provision of the act was to return any human remains or artifacts to the relevant tribe. Seems reasonable enough. However, some remains - such as the Kennewick Man - are of extreme scientific importance and can be shown to have predated any of the native tribes. What to do then? Usually there have been prolonged lawsuits that leave all sides quite unhappy over the outcome. The arguments from the side of the scientists have usually focused in showing that the remains are unrelated to the tribe and, because of that, they do not have to be returned. Now some new rules have been put into place where the tribes can recover bones even if a link to the existing people cannot be established. Understandably, this is worrying to scientists:
Yet researchers who study primarily human remains rather than artifacts worry that the new rules will make their work even more difficult. They point out that the oldest skeletons, many of which are likely to be covered by the new rules, are often the most valuable to science (see p. 171). "The idea of repatriating 10,000-year-old skeletal remains to the group that happens to be living in the vicinity where those remains were found is simply preposterous," says ASU Tempe paleontologist Geoffrey Clark. Kintigh hopes legal action will eventually overturn the new regulations.
The American Association of Physical Anthropologists argued in a 10 May letter to Hutt that the rule "could effectively remove ... human remains that document the rich and complex biocultural history of the first Americans." The result, it warned, could be "wholesale reburial of indigenous history." The Society for American Archaeology took a softer line, criticizing the rule for failing "to recognize scientific study as an important part of increasing knowledge about the human past."
This has some parallels to the issue of telescopes on Mauna Kea, Hawaii (you can find links to posts on this topic here). But on Mauna Kea, we are talking about the relative importance of the top of the mountain for astronomy and for the Native Hawaiian religion. In many ways, the the two issues, while entangles in place, are orthogonal to one another. For human remains however, the object of study itself is highly contentious.

But the biggest problem arises from that of history (damn you history!). In the Mauna Kea case, the telescopes are located on ceded lands and the lease was signed way before Native Hawaiians had any say in the matter. The history of the native-American remains is actually a bit more grim. From Science:
The roots of the conflict lie in the enormous collections of Indian remains and grave goods assembled primarily during the second half of the 19th century. For example, more than 4000 heads of Native Americans were taken from battlefields and burial grounds, stored in the Army Medical Museum in Washington, D.C., and used by some researchers to argue for the racial inferiority of Native Americans. Famed anthropologist Franz Boas said that it was "most unpleasant work to steal bones from graves, but what is the use, someone has to do it."
Native Americans had little say about the disposition of such remains, many of which were displayed publicly. "They should have stayed in the ground with Mother Earth," says Riding In. Given the long history of grave desecration and the reverence most tribes have for ancestors, asserting control over such remains became a key goal of the nascent Native American movement during the 1970s.
But American archaeology also changed during this time:
During the same period, American archaeology was changing. Its long association with art and the humanities began to wane. A new generation of researchers began to draw on the hard sciences to piece together past cultures. "The move was away from the history of a people and toward adopting the scientific method," says archaeologist Michael Wilcox of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, a descendant of Arizona Yumans. Archaeologists began to use new and more sophisticated tools to study animal, plant, and human remains often neglected in the past. They dated remains with radiocarbon, analyzed diets with isotopes, and took the first steps toward extracting DNA to trace relationships among populations. As a result, osteoarchaeology, or the study of ancient human bones, flourished in the 1980s.
The unfortunate conjunction of these two trends pitted Native Americans, with their pent-up grievances and newfound political muscle, against a group of overwhelmingly white scientists devoted to rational inquiry and largely unfamiliar with modern Indian culture. Researchers initially fought the law but misjudged its appeal. NAGPRA was widely seen as human-rights legislation, granting Native Americans—there are roughly 4.5 million in the United States today—the right to rebury their dead. The bill passed both houses of Congress unanimously and became law on 16 November 1990 (Science, 1 April 1994, p. 20).
The final legislation was a compromise with scientists that laid out a complicated process for repatriation. Under NAGPRA, all institutions that receive federal funding were to make inventories of remains and ceremonial objects and repatriate them to "culturally affiliated" tribes. Some items were exempt, including objects and remains that could not be linked to a particular tribe and those found on private land.
Of course, this issue of direct linkage (for example, this was used against the repatriation of the Kennewick Man) is now being removed with the new laws. How should we think about this all? This is a tough-tough issue. Being a scientists myself, I am very sympathetic to (and excited about) the potential of learning about American settlers from 10 millennia ago. This also makes sense when the identity of the remains can be clearly shown to be different from that of the current tribes (by the way, this also becomes a clash of the story of origins of the relevant tribe...). All things being equal, I would argue for this position. But all things are not equal, and there is a relatively nasty history about how some of these objects and remains were collected (and used). This is not the fault of the archaeologists/anthropologists today - but we have to acknowledge this fact and be sympathetic to the position of the tribes. This may include giving up objects/remains we may not want to give up. With some trust and time, who knows, we may be able to do some of this work with the cooperation of the tribes.

Your thoughts?

Read the full article here (you may need subscription to access it). There are couple of interesting article on this issue in the same issue of Science. I will have another post on this. But a relevant article here is about an increased interest in archaeology amongst native-Americans and how this sometimes put individuals in tough positions:
A legacy of exploitation colors the way Native American archaeologists are perceived both by their peers and by American Indians. In the early 1990s, a few years after the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was enacted, Norder says Indian activists "would literally yell in my face" for being an archaeologist. Although passions have since cooled, Wilcox says Native American archaeologists are still considered suspect by the Indian community: "To them, it's like a chicken working for Colonel Sanders." Lippert, who like Norder caught grief from Native American activists years ago, today gets an angry earful from some of her fellow archaeologists, who wonder where her loyalties lie because she supports the new rules. Says Wilcox wryly: "We manage to make everyone unhappy."
Read the full article here.

Related posts:
Mauna Kea Observatories Update
Is it good news that Maui is picked as the site for a new Solar telescope?
Blood samples back to Yanomamo
Havasupai Tribe and the Ethics of DNA Research
A wind farm versus sacred ritiuals
Skeletal remains and the issue of cultural affiliation


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