Position Statement and Debate Repatriation Term Paper

Pages: 10 (2643 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 8  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Anthropology

Repatriation and Its Consequences

There are few more contentious issues in the field of anthropology than that of repatriation, and this is no small claim to make in a field that can often seem to revel in contention. But unlike the generations-spanning feuds in physical anthropology, for example, much of the contention that arises around the issue of repatriation has arisen not between anthropologists but rather between anthropologists (and others working in the human sciences) and Native Americans and those who advocate for them.

This paper examines the effects that NAGPRA has had on research. This includes not only a narrow focus on how many DNA tests are done on how many skeletons and similar types of research findings but on the broader questions of how NAGPRA has shaped (and failed to shape) the discussion about the relationship between the past and the present. Each of the subfields of archaeology (and all of its sub-subfields) have traditionally focused on the past, yielding to historians only at the point at which sufficient written records exist that the material cultural aspects can be to some extent subsumed.

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For many cultures, this ensures that archaeology focuses on a point in time that is sufficiently far in the past that there are few if any people still living who can object to the ways in which their past (and their ancestors) are being treated by current scholars. However, that has not been the case in the United States, where the "past" of native peoples is only a few hundred years and in which there are people whose oral histories connect them back to the very people whose skeletons are being catalogued in museums.


Term Paper on Position Statement and Debate Repatriation Assignment

In 1990 the U.S. Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (almost universally known as NAGPRA). This federal law requires all federal agencies (and in general as a consequence state and local agencies, since these are usually enjoined from acting in conflict with federal law and practice) to provide for "all reasonable opportunities" for any federally registered tribe to claim or reclaim any human remains that is 'culturally affiliated" with that tribe. Also covered by NAGPRA are any artifacts that are associated with human remains or human burials.

In general, NAGPRA was welcomed by anthropologists, who felt as a community (and this included physical and cultural anthropologists as well as archaeologists) that returning culturally affiliated remains was the right thing to do. In fact, as Weiss notes, at least some anthropologists believed that repatriation might in fact supply researchers with more knowledge than they could gain through an examination of the remains themselves.

According to much of the discussion of the law as it was being considered and first put into effect was the idea that tribal representatives would be able to provide researchers with important historical and cultural information during the process of repatriation, the thinking went, ushering in a new era of cooperation between researchers and native peoples. Weiss cites the statement put out by the American Association of Physical Anthropologists as typical of the response of the scholarly community to the provisions in NAGPRA that remains that could be proven to be culturally affiliated with a modern tribe should be returned.

The AAPA supports the rights of Native Americans to claim human remains and funerary objects in cases where the modern group is culturally affiliated with the remains in question

Where cultural affiliation exists, repatriation claims must be honored; but where cultural affiliation is absent, repatriation claims have no moral foundation. (In Weiss, p. 2)

However -- and this has proven in practice to be a significant caveat indeed -- what constitutes affiliation has proven to be anything but straightforward.

It could be argued that, having been deprived of their fundamental rights vis-a-vis their ancestors, Native groups used the law to make claims on remains to which they do not have a right as defined by NAGPRA. Researchers have argued that they have rights to any non-affiliated remains while Native groups have pushed back, arguing that cultural affiliation should be defined at least as much by Native groups as by researchers.

Weiss (p. 6), after examining published research in the years after the enactment of NAGPRA, found that the law significantly suppressed osteological research -- at least in terms of the numbers of studies that were performed and the number of remains that were examined. What Weiss could not do (this is not to place blame on her but rather to acknowledge the limitations of the act of human speculation. It is impossible to measure whether less knowledge was generated or anything about the quality of the knowledge. Not only is knowledge something that cannot be counted, but -- even if it could -- there is no way to assess the quality of knowledge in any objective way. Especially in the immediate present.

Since it is clear that the amount of research done (and the number of remains examined) has decreased since the enactment of NAGPRA, it would be easy to posit that the law has harmed the practice of archaeology. But this is true only if one defines the goals of archaeology in terms that are certainly simplified and are also arguably antiquated. While the paradigms of other subfields in anthropology have changed dramatically in the past generation or so (most notably cultural and linguistic anthropology), the underlying paradigms of archaeology have been far more resistant to change.

Ubelaker & Grant wrote an article in 1989 -- just one year before the passage of NAGPRA -- that reflected ideas that could have been lifted from an article written a century before. The two argue that bones are not ancestors and that researchers should have access to them to forward knowledge that will benefit each one of us because such research will expand understanding of our species.

The study of human remains can generate information about past cultures and civilizations that is unavailable from any other source. For living people descended from those past cultures, the study of remains is a vital link to their past, a means of gaining insight into their present, and even offers the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the future.

With respect to American Indians, much of what is known today about Indian history has been learned through the study of human remains. (p. 250)

What is most extraordinary about the above citation is not the claims made that studying human remains expands knowledge, for certainly studying acquiring facts about human remains adds in at least a quantitative way to the store of what it is that we know about the world.

Rather, what is most extraordinary about the above citation -- and about the following one (which follows immediately after the above citation) -- is that the authors are arguing that they and others have pursued their osteological research not for self-interest or self-benefit but for the benefit of native peoples.

Indeed, it is through those studies that many of the old stereotypes about American Indians have been shattered and relegated to outdated history books and movies.

Without access to Indian human remains, one can only assume that the next generation of American Indians and the generations thereafter will encounter huge gaps in their knowledge and understanding of the history of their people.

Through scientific analysis and long-term curation of Indian human remains, anthropologists and others who have devoted their careers to the study of American Indians can ensure that this history is not lost. The tragedy of such a loss is not limited to American Indians who would never know the full extent of their glorious history, but would be felt by all mankind. (p. 250)

The above makes sense within the context of the beginnings of anthropological/archaeological traditions, in which analytic research is considered to excuse any other motivation or result. However, there are many ways in which the accumulation of knowledge can occur. Knowledge, like research, or truth, or any number of other related concepts are not objective, stable terms.

The ways in which we frame our search for understanding determine the ways in which we gather information, what we do with it and how we are changed by it. Part of what has changed with the passage of NAGPRA is an aspect that has received relatively little commentary. Now anthropologists (including archaeologists) have to consider the relationship between living peoples and their material artifacts in a different way.

Up to NAGPRA (not universally, but commonly) scholars could create a dualism between the dead and the living, between the physical remains (literally as well as in more metaphorical ways). Native peoples exist in the modern world just like the rest of us, but their past could be peeled off in, creating a distinction between past and present that is not the lived experience for native peoples. Nor, it must be pointed out, is it the lived experience of most people.

Neither you nor I (or at least not I) consider myself and the way… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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