Rule of the Bone

After a century of hoarding American Indian remains, scientists are being forced to return their specimens. But the bodies may not go back into the ground without a fight.

Around the time that such theories became stylish in some European nations, Jenks turned his attention to archaeology. And while his contribution to anthropology tends to be conveniently forgotten, his legacy in the new endeavor endures. He trained Lloyd A. Wilford, who inherited his mantle as the U's top archaeologist. (In a bit of historical irony, Wilford in turn trained Elden Johnson, an early proponent of repatriation, and Johnson trained Christy Caine, one of the architects of Minnesota's reburial law.) More than any other individual, Wilford is responsible for the human-remains collection at the UM. During his career, he led nearly 150 excavations of burial mounds and grave sites.

"Graves were easier to find than villages, and they were full of what looked like information," explains Tom Trow, another university archaeologist who sits on the school's repatriation advisory committee. Jenks and Wilford "genuinely didn't understand that what they were doing was causing so much pain in the Indian community," he says. "They actually did excavate graves and took field notes on what was contained in the graves, and brought all that back--human remains and grave goods--and considered it data. They felt that the right thing to do for scientific purposes was to, in a sense, rescue the materials from further deterioration and disintegration."

The campaign to deliver dead native people into the hands of the living has been around for some time. It's a movement that has always contained to various degrees spiritual and political components. Back in 1974, Apache Jan Hammil Bear Shield directed an organization called American Indians Against Desecration that, along with vocal aboriginal groups in Australia and indigenous groups around the globe, garnered enough sympathy to their cause to prompt the World Archaeological Congress to take up the issue in 1989.

At that event, Bear Shield explained the impetus for the repatriation movement: "That which is called death, to us, is only a change in life as we continue on a journey to the spirit world. Any disruption, delay or halt in that journey is a violation of personal religious beliefs to that individual, [and] to his descendants." In 1990, activists in the U.S. were rewarded with passage of NAGPRA.

Since then, work on repatriating human remains has progressed fairly quietly. If arguments raged, they did so in the sheltered halls of academia. But the headline-grabbing case of "Kennewick Man" might change all that. Found last summer in the state of Washington, these bones, which are some 9,000 years old, bear little resemblance to any modern or prehistoric American Indian tribe. In fact, they appear to belong to a prehistoric Caucasian. Nevertheless, the Army Corps of Engineers seized the bones intending to turn them over to Indians.

With some American Indians claiming their histories don't allow for white ancestors, and scientists tantalized by new archaeological mysteries, it's no wonder Kennewick Man has become the poster-skull of the repatriation controversy. The skeleton is galvanizing opposition to NAGPRA among some archaeologists; there is talk of seeking out other ancient remains and fighting to keep them from being interred. A lawsuit has been filed.

There have been anti-NAGPRA rumblings in the archaeological community in the past, but they've almost never broken the genteel veneer of academia. Even since Kennewick Man, scientists both pro and con are cautious to the point of paranoia when it comes to discussing NAGPRA. In part, their fears reflect the widespread campus preoccupation with avoiding offense, along with the embarrassed discomfort of a field struggling to throw off its historic legacy--the eugenicists like Jenks, the treasure-seekers, the grave robbers. But it goes beyond that. Archaeologists' scholarly interest has always been other peoples' history; they've sought to determine how strangers lived. The broader thrust of NAGPRA is a challenge of their right to do that. Many seem speechless in the face of that challenge.

"Archaeologists are running scared," says John Whittaker, an osteologist at Grinnell College in Iowa who has written one of the few treatises critical of NAGPRA. "A lot of my colleagues who aren't happy about the situation aren't willing to talk about it and there are an awful lot who are acquiescing too easily. We haven't communicated successfully to the public that the archaeological past is important to everyone. We haven't made our findings open and relevant to enough people."

Even now, most of the critics don't seem prepared to make their case publicly. There is a group of professional and hobby archaeologists opposed to NAGPRA, called the American Committee for the Preservation of Archaeological Collections. Kennewick Man has become their cause célèbre. "If you can imagine it," one of its members told me, "they're allowing Indians to go in there and pray over the bones now, but they won't let scientists even look at them." But she balked at putting me in contact with others on the group's roster, which is kept secret for fear of reprisals.

The Kennewick Man controversy highlights a gray area in the federal law. Simply put, NAGPRA orders museums and universities to identify each skeleton's "cultural affiliation"--in other words, which American Indian tribe it belongs to. The remains must then be matched to any objects excavated with them. The results are published in the Federal Register. Various tribes make claims and possibly counterclaims on the bones. Once that's sorted out and the remains are turned over, it's each tribe's business to rebury them.

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