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.

NAGPRA carries this "New Archaeology" even further. It forces archaeologists to face their subjects, or at least their descendants. At the UM, Tom Trow insists, there is no room for anything less. "Anybody who is still not getting this and really doesn't understand what's wrong about looting graves may be in the wrong profession," he says. "They can be good at crunching numbers and processing data and analyzing dirt, but they can't be good at the important, cultural part of archaeology which is understanding people's lives."

"I have faith," he adds, "that we have enough ingenuity to develop enough other kinds of tools to learn important things about the past without having to excavate graves."

But it isn't so simple for O'Connell. In her highly specialized world, it's simply unrealistic to toss out years of work and training to start over with new methods. As long as there are human osteologists--and O'Connell is training a new crop at Hamline--there will be a demand for human remains. So scientists are turning to new objects of study. O'Connell and her colleagues recently excavated a Finnish-American graveyard in northern Minnesota. One of her assistants has begun working with the bones of ancient primates. And Hamline has added a program in forensics, which will apply some of the same techniques of study to criminology.

And of course there is the task of NAGPRA compliance itself. The work O'Connell is doing for the MIAC is in many cases the first research to be conducted on the bones since they came out of the earth. Even after the current collections have been reburied, O'Connell expects to continue examining human remains for repatriation--ones unearthed not by archaeologists, but by casual bulldozing for progress. "Human remains will continue to come into this lab," she says, "as long as there are earth-moving projects. We just have to change our idea of how long they stay here."

At its heart, NAGPRA represents a shift in the balance of power between American Indians and scientists, between the scholars and the studied. The visible change may take place in the basement vaults of museums and universities across the country. But the more profound change is at the invisible juncture where science and politics meet. NAGPRA raises uncomfortable questions: Who could trust the results of science carried out on looted corpses? Who would believe the stories of an anthropologist with a pickled penis on his desk?

These questions have their parallel in the recurring controversy over scientific studies performed by Nazi doctors on concentration-camp victims. The local version played out in the 1980s, when researchers at the UM wanted to look at hypothermia research conducted at Dachau and other camps. "It was repellent," says Stephen Gudeman, chairman of the university's department of anthropology, "and maybe by not using that data we're making a statement that that information is not legitimate. And if we do use it, what kind of statement are we making? I think of that example, the Nazi research, in terms of the Native American debate. Maybe we just have to say, 'No. I don't care. I'm just not going to use that. The nature of scientific knowledge isn't worth it.'

"Science is always politicized," he continues. "Whose knowledge is it? You don't want to get to the point where it's any old knowledge. It's got to be based on some solid techniques. But there has to be a real understanding of the political context. That's a new dimension, and I think it's going to yield a different kind of anthropology."

What form such a "New New Archaeology" might take is not clear. But Jim Jones--the MIAC staffer responsible for the repatriation of all Native remains in Minnesota--provides a clue. When native activists' demand for their ancestors' remains first began to gain momentum, Jones (now 32) was still playing in the mud at his mom's house in Minneapolis, and his dad's on the Cass Lake reservation. Today, he is the man responsible for seeing to it that all of the human remains in collections around the state are returned to the earth.

Like many American Indians, Jones grew up regarding archaeologists with suspicion. "The misconception is that an archaeologist is someone that digs up dead people," he says. "That comes from years of people from the university working--sometimes right in the community--digging up human remains." He remembers watching with wry amusement as a team of archaeologists painstakingly sifted through a dig near his home, trying to discover the meaning of the artifacts they retrieved. Jones knew through his uncles, who heard it from his grandfather, that the researchers were looking at a traditional wild-ricing camp. "Sometimes you can learn a lot just by talking to people," he says.

Yet like most archaeologists, Jones is fascinated by the tangible mystery of the field. As a young man he worked in the Department of Natural Resources' machine shop, pulling engines and cranking on heavy equipment. When one of his pals asked if he wanted to join a DNR dig, he jumped at the chance. "I remember that first year I was bringing every pebble to them--'Is this something?'" Now he is chipping away at an archaeology degree at Bemidji State University while he sifts through the technical details of NAGPRA on the job.

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