Monday, 13 December 2010

Bones of contention (from the NYT)

Excerpted from:

By ROBERT L. KELLY, published on the NYT on December 12, 2010

Article about the impact of the recent regulations issued by Department of the Interior for the disposition of ancient American Indian remains and funerary objects that cannot be affiliated with modern tribes. The author argues that the new regulation will be detrimental to sources of knowledge about North American history ...

"The new regulations help carry out the 20-year-old Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a law that was devised by tribes, scientists and museum officials. It was a compromise between the tribes’ sensitivity to having the remains of their ancestors excavated and analyzed and the archaeologists’ desire to learn what bones can reveal about ancient peoples’ diet, health, migration patterns, marriage practices and so on."

Read more on the NYT site (link is above)


  1. I think this sounds like a step backwards. It sounds like the new regulations would be disrespectful to the remains and to the tribes. Just giving away the remains to anyone who will take them seems a bit odd "The main objective, it seems, is to get rid of the remains however possible, as quickly as possible" (R. L. Kelly) but why? it doesn't seem like anyone will benefit from it.
    This article is written by an academic I would like to hear from a tribal member. In the new regulations it states that it was based off of comments received from tribes but it doesn't say that any tribes were directly consulted or involved with the regulations.

  2. I’m not sure about this. Now, the pdf with the new regulations is 29 pages, so I merely read the article and might therefore have missed some important bits, but basically as I understood it this deals with the remains of Ancient American Indians WITHOUT an affiliation with ANY modern tribe.

    This raises questions of ownership. If there’s no affiliation with the human remains, who do they belong to? Who can claim ownership over them, and why?

    “The new federal regulations undermine this progress. In an effort to repatriate the 124,000 sets of remains that cannot be affiliated with recognized tribes using current evidence, they ignore the importance of tribal connections to ancient remains … Institutions must now offer to repatriate remains to tribes that have no demonstrable cultural affiliation with them.”

    That just seems odd to me. If there’s not affiliation between the ancient remains and modern tribes, why would the claim of ownership of the modern tribes be valued higher than the claim of ownership that the scientists present?

    I find the last sentence “institutions MUST now offer to repatriate…” especially disturbing. Why must they do this? Have the Native Americans asked for this?

    And then this sentence “If all else fails, institutions can simply re-inter the unidentifiable remains near where they were found.” Did I read this correctly? If nobody wants the remains, institutions are expected to rebury them in the vicinity of the location where they were once found? Just, dig a hole, maybe say a few nice words, and then just walk away? I understand that it’s obviously not that simple, but it’s certainly how the article makes it sound like…

  3. Exactly Iris! re-burial near to where they were found? What!? With no tribe (and I am sure that the U.S. government won't be stepping in to help) looking after those remains it leaves them open to looting! and what about remains that have no connections to tribes and also no provenance? Are they still required to be buried?

  4. Do you remember the controversy about Kennewick man (very rare, aprox 9,000 yr old human remains found in Washington State). There was a huge legal dispute because some of the Native American tribes wanted the remains immediately reburied while scientist wanted a chance to study them. Eventually the courts decided the scientists did have a right to study the material because none of the current Native American tribes could prove cultural affiliation (due to the age of the remains). Would this new regulation affect the status of very ancient remains? Do unaffiliated tribes now have the right to claim very old, potentially controversial remains?

  5. That's a good question! What does happen to the un-provenanced finds? I would think that we don’t only have to worry about finds of which the exact finds location was never recorded properly (or finds where we’ve lost that information from), but also possibly parts of land where remains were found and which are now occupied. I imagine that most people would not like to have Native American human remains reburied near their land.

    It makes no sense to me to rebury remains that have no affiliation and/or provenance. Might it not be better to keep them in the museums (etc.) until, as the article suggests, better methods have been developed to ascertain cultural provenance? That way we could be sure that the remains are returned to ... I was almost going to say ‘the right people’, but that seems entirely vague and slightly wrong somehow... The descendents? The rightful ‘owners’? The main stakeholders? Can anyone help me and think of a better term?

    I was looking on the internet if I could find more information about the regulations, and stumbled on this website:

    It’s from “The Cultural Property and Archaeology Blog”, which definitely seems worth browsing through if you have the time!

  6. Kenan Malik wrote a good article on relating issues:

    Who Owns Knowledge?

    Malik, Kenan (2007) 'Who Owns Knowledge?', Index on Censorship, 36:3, 156 - 167


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