Relics, Rights and Regulations

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  • What a wonderful idea it seems,especially in these politicallycorrect days: force museumsand universities to return sacred relicsand excavated burials that scientistsstole from Native Americans and Ha-waiians years ago. In November 1990that logic led the U.S. Congress andPresident George Bush to enact a newlaw, the Native Americans Graves Pro-tection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

    Most institutions openly embrace theneed to repatriate Native American ar-tifacts, but NAGPRA represents a quin-tessential example of good intentionsgone badly awry. In typical fashion, thelawmakers gave little forethought tothe social and economic consequencesof the act, not only for museums butalso for tribal organizations, which mustnow sift through reams of inventorylists describing objects and skeletal re-mains that may or may not be associ-ated with their ancestors. The law isstraining museums meager resourcesand may foster legal battles that will dolittle for scientists or for native groupstrying to rebuild their ethnic heritage.

    Under NAGPRA, institutions have hadto prepare complete, lengthy lists ofholdings that might properly belong toNative American groups. The deadlinefor the summaries of this material hasalready passed; full inventories of ar-chaeological artifacts are due in Novem-ber 1995. But the Department of the In-terior, which oversees the enforcementof NAGPRA, has yet to generate the fed-erally mandated guidelines to aid theshort-staed museums in their tasks.Recently Congress allocated $2.3 mil-lion to assist both museums and nativegroups in implementing parts of the law.That sum could not fund the work atmy museum, let alone the hundreds ofaected institutions around the country.

    In the meantime some members ofthe NAGPRA Review Committee, an or-ganization of Native Americans andnonnative professionals, have beeninterpreting the law to suit their ends.Several sections of the original text ofthe law state that it applies only tothose tribes that have received feder-al recognition through due process. Thereview committee now suggests thatgroups that are not federally recognizedshould be consulted, too. The eect is

    to compel museums and universities toserve as intermediaries between thefederal government and unocial na-tive groups that are attempting to useclaims led under NAGPRA as a way togain federal recognition. The goal, ofcourse, is to get the attendant rights andfunding. NAGPRA has turned into anunintended piece of civil rights legisla-tion, one that may require Congress togrant new entitlements even as the oldones become prime targets for cutting.

    Ido not mean to say that all the lawseects have been bad. Museums anduniversities are now communicatingwith native groups to an extent unheardof a few years ago. In the course of ne-gotiations, many of those groups are re-alizing that they have no proper way tocatalogue, store and preserve the sacredartifacts and burial remains covered byNAGPRA. In addition, such groups oftenno longer practice the original rituals inwhich the items were used, or if they do,they may produce objects more usefulthan the old, fragile relics. Native Amer-icans and scientists are thus nding thattheir interests often dovetail.

    One example of the new spirit of col-laboration is taking place at the SantaBarbara campus of the University of Cal-ifornia. Phillip L. Walker, a professorthere and a member of the NAGPRA Re-view Committee, entered into an agree-ment with the Chumash tribe to createan on-campus ossuary that is controlledby the Chumash but open to Walker andto the university. This particular solu-tion was possible in part because of theunambiguous history of the Chumash.

    There is good archaeological and his-toric evidence that the modern Chu-mash are direct descendants of the na-tives whose remains have been exca-vated on the California mainland andnearby Channel Islands. It thereforeseemed sensible to grant the Chumashcontrol over most of the artifacts foundin this region. As long as the currentChumash group continues in power, theagreement worked out by Walker andthe university will stand. If, as is oftenthe case in politics, the next Chumashleadership disagrees with its predeces-sors decisions, Walker could lose ac-cess to the collection.

    In much of North America, working

    out such curatorial compromises iscomplicated by solid evidence thatmodern tribes are not directly descend-ed from the prehistoric inhabitants ofthe same area. Many groups, particu-larly early hunter-gatherers, moved fre-quently among many regions. The fed-erally recognized Native Americans liv-ing in an area today may have no morelineal connection to the makers of thelocal archaeological remains than do theexcavators themselves. One solution fa-vored by certain native groups is to givethe remains to the local tribe regardlessof any empirical connection betweenmodern and ancient dwellers. Some Na-tive Americansand some scientists,including meoppose such action onritual and rational grounds. Allowingone set of people to dictate the treat-ment of relics that belong to anotherruns directly contrary to the ideal thatmotivated NAGPRA in the rst place.

    I have deliberately not argued for thescientic value of keeping collectionsby universities; this topic has been ar-gued to death. It is only fair that nativegroups should be able to regain pos-session of artifacts that legitimately be-long to them. But it is worth noting thatgenetic research related to skeletal re-mains has reached a critical threshold;future work would have great importfor science and for native groups alike.Archaeological research into the geog-raphy of tribal territories, patterns ofmigration and interactions betweengroups could actually aid Native Amer-icans in their land claims.

    The greater problem here is the bu-reaucracy in charge of the process. At a1992 meeting of the American Anthro-pological Association, C. Timothy Mc-Keown of the Department of the Interi-or stated that he would feel the depart-ment had done its job if all parties weredissatised. No wonder the electorateis so angry at government. Universities,museums and native groups appear,despite the many obstacles, to be nd-ing resolutions to the problem of repa-triation. In the end, I am sure the NAG-PRA Review Committee and the Depart-ment of the Interior will take credit forthe benecial solutions that result.

    STEVEN SHACKLEY is an assistant re-search archaeologist at the P. A. HearstMuseum of Anthropology at the Univer-sity of California, Berkeley.

    SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN March 1995 115

    ESSAY by Steven Shackley

    Relics, Rights and Regulations

    Copyright 1995 Scientific American, Inc.