A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
It was in 1971 that two things happened that changed the practice of archaeology, the relationship between archaeologists and Native Americans, and the attention paid to site destruction. In a case before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, our 1906 Antiquity Act was declared "fatally vague," the vagueness in this case being in how old an object had to be in order to be an "antiquity." With an impaired Antiquity Act, which theoretically protects huge amounts of federal land, particularly in the western U.S., people could dig in National Forests, National Parks, on public land anywhere without fear of arrest. Because 80 percent of the land in some western states is owned or controlled by various federal agencies, this constituted a threat to thousands of sites. Moreover, the 1906 act had been largely ignored. Enforcement in the west was almost impossible, and the few blatant cases which came to a local court were usually dismissed. Hue and cry in the professional archaeological community resulted in the passage in 1979 of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA), strengthening the 1906 act and providing stiffer penalties. Perhaps equally important, the attention of land-managing federal agencies was focused on enforcement and on public education about the nature of archaeological sites and the unique stories they contain. Arrests and convictions under ARPA have steadily increased as has the publicity about them. The previous lame excuse--"I didn't know it was against the law"--no longer holds.
The other thing that happened in 1971 was the organization of the American Indian Movement. Politically active Native Americans began systematically to attack "archaeologists"--both verbally and physically--making no distinction between those of us who are "scientists" and those who dig for artifacts to sell. As far as these Native Americans were concerned, anyone who dug in their ancestors' villages, much less in cemeteries, was a target. Excavation was viewed as yet another instance of colonialism, of the powerful doing as they wished with the remains of the disenfranchised. Well-publicized confrontations compelled archaeologists to start talking to the descendants of those they were studying. Over time, some archaeologists, perhaps even most, have joined with Native Americans in denouncing digging graves solely to recover the artifacts they contain. Where it exists, this new partnership has often resulted in state laws which protect any unmarked grave from unnecessary disturbance.