Sunday, September 28, 2008

NAGPRA Runs Amok in Hawaii

The Museum Security Network has republished an interesting article from "Indian Country Today" about how the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was used to justify the "reburial" of important artifacts from the Bishop Museum in some sacred caves in Hawaii : For more about the Bishop Museum see:

The article recounts quite a story of how a law meant to protect the rights of Native Americans to the bones and artifacts of their ancestors has entangled Senator Inouye, his staff, the Department of the Interior and the venerable Bishop Museum in quite a tale of conflict of interest, self-dealing, theft, breach of fiduciary duty and even contempt of court. Meanwhile, "Indian Country Today" also reports elsewhere that the National Park Service is under investigation for improperly spending some $3 million in NAGPRA funds and that the entire program is under review for responsiveness to Tribal interests.

What a mess. At least a member of the NAGPRA review panel indicates that his committee is “very open” to “increasing the accountability and transparency” of the law’s implementation. Amen.


Voz Earl said...

I first heard of NAGPRA while taking a college level introductory course to archaeology which was taught by an actual archaeologist. She showed us several documentaries about the fallout of NAGPRA including one that just floored me.

It was about an institution's collection of Native American remains (John Hopkins I believe) which were turned over to local tribes who performed some traditional rituals and promptly buried them. An academic from the institution was interviewed at length and was quite dismayed at the loss of the collection and the potential research opportunities, including those which could potentially benefit NAs today. Meanwhile, who knows whether the remains were even related to the particular tribe/tribes who received the artifacts and buried them--they could have been enemy tribes for all we know, or from tribes no longer in existence.

This was my introduction to cultural property activism--a mix of cultural/nationalistic pride, romanticism and even ignorance. The Native Americans interviewed were all very emotional--some even crying--as they described their feelings at winning control of "their family's" bones and restoring them to the proper state of burial according to their particular tribal customs.

This is the Mr. Hyde side of the beast created by academics who champion the idea of cultural property/heritage. The instructor also related personal knowledge of colleagues who had had their premises searched by police and one had even been arrested for failure to turn over every scrap of NA material to a particular tribe following the passage of NAGPRA. There were also interviews with experts on some tribes who could no longer conduct further research because tribe members who now had control of the material had cut off access out of personal animosity. The instructor never came out and directly slammed NAGPRA, but it was pretty clear what she thought about it and it's effects on her profession.

Voz Earl

Cultural Property Observer said...

For an additional critique of NAGPRA see the late Steven Vincent's "Indian Givers" in K. FitzGibbon, "Who Owns the Past?"33 (Rutgers 2005). The first paragraph gives the flavor of Vincent's work:

"Imagine an America where the federal government takes an active role in promoting the spirital values of a certain cultural group. This group differs in its means of worship, rarely documents its religious practices and in fact considers many of its rituals too secret for public knowledge. Yet should outsiders violate this group's beliefs, the government swoops down, threatening malefactors with lawsuits, fines, or prison sentences. Impossible, you say given our constitutional safegards? Many people believe this scenario is occurring right now, particularly in the south-western United States, where the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act has created a legal and cultural property imbroglio that has many scientists frustrated, art dealers scared, and the general public confused. 'What we're seeing here is the triumph of political correctness over logic and reason,' says Arizona State University anthropology professor Geoffrey A. Clark."

Nathan Elkins said...

Being a classical archaeologist, I'm not confronted with issues regarding NAGPRA, but I know a few North American anthropologists who must be sensitive to these complex issues. Since it is an election year, it is perhaps worth noting that to the chagrin of many archaeologists and scholars, Senator McCain wanted to rephrase part of NAGPRA in a way which would restrict scientific study even further. I remember seeing several news articles and letters of protest at the time, but I'm having difficulty finding them at present. I did find this blog post which summarizes some of the controversy behind the changes that were curiously supported by McCain.

"One proposal was sponsored by Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) and the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. The two-word change it proposes would make it easier for Native Americans to obtain the bones of their ancestors and make it harder for scientists to use those bones for scientific study."


"The McCain amendment would change the definition of “Native American” from a group that “is indigenous to North America” to a group that “is or was indigenous to North America.” With the Committee’s change, the law would recognize that cultures change over time and that direct descendants of an ancient skeleton can look far different from those of their ancestors. For example, although the Cascade peoples of 9300 years ago do not exist as Cascade peoples today, their descendants, the Native Americans who live here today, could be culturally affiliated to the 9300-year-old Kennewick Man."