Grave Injustice: Federal Laws about Burial Remains Put Politics before Science

Article excerpt

IMAGINE AN AMERICA where the federal government takes an active role in promoting the spiritual values of a certain cultural group. This group rarely documents its largely unknown religious practices and in fact considers many rituals too secret for public knowledge. Yet should outsiders violate its beliefs, the government can threaten them with lawsuits, fines, or prison sentences.

Many people believe this scenario needn't be imagined at all, because this America exists now. A statute called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) has created a legal and cultural imbroglio that has scientists frustrated, art dealers scared, and the general public befuddled. In the words of one archaeologist, Geoffrey Clark of Arizona State University, "What we're seeing here is the triumph of political correctness over logic and reason."

To Native American groups and their supporters, NAGPRA and similar laws are long-overdue measures that protect burial remains and sacred objects, helping redress the wrongs Indians have suffered since 1492. According to Arizona Judge Sherry Hutt, speaking before the U.S. Senate in 1999, NAGPRA is "one of the most significant pieces of human rights legislation since the Bill of Rights." For Fort Lewis College anthropologist Kathleen Fine-Dare, author of Grave Injustice: The American Indian Repatriation Movement and NAGPRA, "This was more than a law; it was a change in the American consciousness." Cherokee tribe member Steve Russell, an associate professor of criminal justice at Indiana University, says the law "has helped transform Indian bones from archaeological specimens to the remains of human beings."

The law's critics disagree. "This law presents a clear and present danger to our study of the past," says Alan L. Schneider, an attorney with the Oregon-based pro-archaeology group Friends of America's Past. "The people in Congress who voted for this measure never thought it would go this far." The sentiment is echoed by a leading dealer of Indian artifacts who, like many people interviewed for this article, prefers not to be identified by name. "NAGPRA frightens everyone--dealers, collectors, everyone" he says. "I don't want Big Brother snooping around my business."

How did a well-intentioned piece of legislation come to provoke fears of Orwellian snooping? The answer involves the weighted history of Indian relations, a vaguely written federal law, and the zealous agencies that seek to enforce it, as well as aspects of Native American culture that strike some non-Indians as confusing and often contradictory.

Repatriation Rising

Signed by the first President George Bush in 1990, NAGPRA requires federal agencies, and institutions that receive federal money, to inventory any bodily remains or important cultural artifacts of Indians, native Alaskans, or Hawaiian peoples in their collections--and to return those items, on request, to "culturally affiliated" tribes or descendants. In addition, the statute restricts commercial trade in those objects. Exempt from the law are objects held by the Smithsonian Institution (a separate statute, the 1989 National Museum of the American Indian Act, covers those) or objects found after 1990 on state-owned lands (most states have their own repatriation laws). Nor does NAGPRA apply to items amassed in private collections before 1990 or discovered on private land.

"Congress was seeking a balance between private rights and the rights Of Indians," says Jack Trope, executive director of the not-for-profit Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA), who served as an instrumental adviser to legislators during the creation of NAGPRA. "But at the same time, most people drafting this law felt that our legal system needed to do a better job of representing Native American culture."

The act was the latest in a series of often faltering efforts to preserve Native American culture and grant Indians equal protection under the law. …