Repatriation: inevitable conflict, endless debate

Photo: Nicholas Merkelson
Dr. Robert Kelly, an anthropology professor at the University of Wyoming, submitted a short opinion piece (“Bones of Contention,” Dec. 12, 2010) to the New York Times in which he argues for the repeal of the latest NAGPRA Regulations on the Disposition of Culturally Unidentifiable Human Remains.  The regulations, effective May 14, 2010, require American museums, universities, and institutions receiving federal funds, and therefore subject to NAGPRA mandates, to repatriate all culturally unaffiliated sets of human remains in their collections.  Under the new rules, according to Kelly, control of remains must be transferred to Native American tribes regardless of whether cultural affiliation can be accurately determined.  In his and other archaeologists’ view, any tribe, federally recognized or not, is capable of claiming remains as their own.  Kelly writes, “The main objective, it seems, is to get rid of the remains however possible, as quickly as possible.”
I feel particularly invested in this issue after completing my master’s dissertation, titled “NAGPRA, 1990-2010: Consultation, Communication, Collaboration (‘Three C’s’) As Best Practice for Native American Repatriation Cases.”  Rather than arguing the merits of scientific analysis versus repatriation, I instead advocate a three-step best practice approach towards the mutual agreement on the disposition of human remains in American collections.  Below is the abstract of this paper.

In November of this year we will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).  Heralded as a major piece of human rights legislation, NAGPRA has made great strides in its twenty years in revaluing Native American religion and culture as a vital part of the national heritage.  The anniversary year provides a useful opportunity to evaluate the current state and future direction of repatriation in the United States.  In this paper I explicate the “Three C’s”–consultation, communication, collaboration–as a best practice for parties to Native American repatriation cases.  Where the debate is widely viewed as one between culture and science, I argue instead that Native and scientific ways of knowing about the past are equally valuable towards understanding the human condition and our species’ shared cultural heritage.  Based on secondary source research and personal communication with repatriation scholars around the United States, I discuss important historic preservation and Native American religious freedom laws that have influenced how NAGPRA has been applied to the diversity of requests for the return of human remains and cultural objects.  Using the Zuni Tribe’s approach to repatriation as a positive example, I explain how parties interested in a case should follow the Three C’s to achieve a mutually agreeable outcome.  Consultation, communication, and collaboration as a recommended method of discourse may foster constructive relationships between groups with historically conflicting viewpoints, namely Native Americans, museums, archaeologists, and anthropologists.

Interested in learning more about this paper and/or discussing repatriation of human remains and cultural property?  Please email cultureinperil (at) gmail (dot) com.

This entry was posted in anthropology, archaeology, cultural property, culture, Culture in Peril, heritage, New York Times, repatriation, science. Bookmark the permalink.

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