A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
online features
Debating NAGPRAS's Effects "Native Americans and Archaeologists"
February 26, 1999

Opposing viewpoints about NAGPRA were presented in our November/December 1994 issue by the late Clement W. Meighan, then emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Larry J. Zimmerman, an archaeologist now at the University of Iowa.

Meighan saw reburying bones and artifacts as "the equivalent of the historian burning documents after he has studied them. Thus, repatriation is not merely an inconvenience but makes it impossible for scientists to carry out a genuinely scientific study of American Indian prehistory." Because of NAGPRA, he concluded, "an entire field of academic study may be put out of business."

According to Zimmerman, archaeologists must cooperate with Native Americans: "What steps should archaeologists who study native peoples take to insure an amicable working relationship? First, we should be activists in consulting with any community or group that might be affected by our work, and we shouldn't be doing it just because it is required by law or is politically correct. Rather, we should consult Native Americans because we recognize their valid interests in the past. Working with them, they will provide us with insights into our understanding of their past. In so doing, archaeologists can share the past, rather than impose their own version of it."

Their arguments are presented in full below.

Burying American Archaeology
by Clement W. Meighan

In 1991 the West Virginia Department of Transportation and a committee of Indians and non-Indians claiming to represent Native American viewpoints signed an agreement whereby everything unearthed in advance of road construction near the 2,000-year-old Adena mound was to be given up for reburial within a year. "Everything" included not only cremated bones but artifacts such as chipping waste, food refuse, pollen samples, and soil samples. The $1.8 million rescue excavation was federally funded--in the interest of science. Yet nothing of tangible archaeological evidence was to be preserved. In addition, Indian activists were paid by the state to monitor the excavation and to censor "objectionable" photographs or data appearing in the final report. The activists also insisted that, following an alleged ancient custom, human remains be covered with red flannel until reburial and that no remains, including artifacts, be touched by menstruating women.

American Indians, Australian aborigines, and ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel have all attacked archaeology in recent years and continue to seek restrictions on archaeological study. In North America, the argument has been put forward that the archaeological study of ancient Native American people is a violation of the religious freedom of living Indians. Some Indian spokesmen have claimed their right, on religious grounds, to control archaeological study and specimens regardless of the age of the remains, the area from which they come, or the degree of claimed Indian ancestry.

In my view, archaeologists have a responsibility to the people they study. They are defining the culture of an extinct group and in presenting their research they are writing a chapter of human history that cannot be written except from archaeological investigation. If the archaeology is not done, the ancient people remain without a history.

A number of confusions have led to the present conflict over archaeological study of Native American remains. One is the assumption of direct genetic and cultural continuity between living persons and those long deceased. Who knows whether the Indians of 2,000 years ago believed that a corpse must be covered with red flannel and not touched by menstruating women? As if to emphasize their contempt for real ancestral relationships, the activists who demanded reburial of the remains from the Adena mound included Indians from tribes as far away as northwestern Washington, as well as non-Indians. Meanwhile, the views of a local West Virginia tribe that favored preservation of the remains were ignored.

A year before the Adena mound reburial, the federal government passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. According to preliminary interpretations of this law, some sort of relationship must be shown between claimants and the materials claimed. However, no line has been drawn at remains over a certain age, despite the obvious impossibility of establishing a familial relationship spanning 20 or more generations of unrecorded history. Millions of dollars have now been spent to inventory collections, including those containing items thousands of years old, and to add a corps of bureaucrats to interpret and administer the legislation. An enormous amount of scientists' time is also being diverted from research that might otherwise be done on those bones and artifacts soon to be lost to repatriation.

One wonders why museum directors are so eager to relinquish the holdings for which they are responsible. Museums house a great variety of collections and their directors are rarely trained in any of the natural sciences or have any special interest in physical anthropology. Being, for the most part, public institutions, they are dependent on good public relations, which can be undermined by activists. Like politicians, museum directors seem all too willing to satisfy activists by dissatisfying scientists. Meanwhile, in university departments of anthropology, physical anthropologists are normally outnumbered by cultural anthropologists. The latter have little interest in osteological collections; more important to them is maintaining good relations with the living tribes with whom they work. As a group, cultural anthropologists include a considerable number of politicized academics. Many of them welcome an opportunity to demonstrate their solidarity with an allegedly oppressed minority, especially when it means insisting that the latter's native religion be respected. Since their own research will not be adversely affected, they have nothing to lose. Political correctness has rarely been so all-around satisfying.

It is questionable whether Indian activists and politicized professors and curators could succeed in influencing politicians and administrators if the latter found their claims to be utterly implausible. Even the most cynical and opportunistic lawmakers would not want to be observed supporting self-evidently absurd demands. Yet the multiple laws inhibiting archaeological research, physical anthropology, and museum studies have all been instigated and justified in the name of Indian religious beliefs. This is remarkable for a number of reasons. First, no other religious group in the United States has been given the same protection. Second, most Indians no longer hold these beliefs. Third, Indian knowledge of the traditions of their ancestors is derived in large part from the collections and scholarship that the activists among them are now seeking to destroy.

That measures hostile to science have gained so much ground in this nation's legislative bodies, universities, and museums--and on so flimsy a basis--suggest that there has been a sea change in the opinions and sentiments that have hitherto guided the public in support of scientific endeavor. The New Age disposition to invoke or invent beliefs no one really holds, and to maintain that they are of a value at least equal to, if not supremely greater than, those that account for the triumph of Western civilization, is given concrete expression in the repatriation movement. Conversely, the success of this movement will further reinforce these newly fashionable doubts about the value of Western science in particular and rational thought in general.

Reasonable doubts have been raised about whether the large quantity of bones tucked away in museum drawers and cabinets are really of scientific value. In fact, these are frequently studied by physical anthropologists and their students. The techniques of statistical research require as large a sample as possible so that generalizations can be well-formulated. In addition, bones that have already been examined may be needed again when new analytic techniques are developed. Only recently has it been possible to extract antibodies and genetic material from ancient bones, making it possible to trace the evolution of specific human diseases. Future laboratory advances in dating bones and in determining the source of artifact materials will also require these objects to be available for study. Finally, the bones belonging to particular tribes are precisely those that are most valuable to historical studies of those tribes.

But even if it were true that the bones, once examined, need never be studied again, the demand that they be reburied conflicts with the scholarly requirement to preserve data. If research data are destroyed, there can be no basis on which to challenge honest but possibly erroneous conclusions. Reburying bones and artifacts is the equivalent of the historian burning documents after he has studied them. Thus, repatriation is not merely an inconvenience but makes it impossible for scientists to carry out a genuinely scientific study of American Indian prehistory. Furthermore, it negates scientific work that has already been done, since the evidence on which that work was based is now to be buried.

Repatriation also raises other issues. It is a violation of a museum's public trust to give away materials that it has held legally and at public expense. A similar violation is involved when a museum has received these materials from a private donor or at a private donor's expense. In particular, such action ignores many Indians who donated or sold materials on the understanding that these items would go into a permanent repository for the benefit of future generations of Indians.

An entire field of academic study may be put out of business. It has become impossible for a field archaeologist to conduct a large-scale excavation in the United States without violating some law or statute. The result is that archaeology students are now steered away from digs where they might actually find some American Indian remains. American archaeology is an expiring subject of study--one in which new students no longer choose to specialize. Instead, they specialize in the archaeology of other countries, where they will be allowed to conduct their research and have some assurance that their collections will be preserved.

Scientific disciplines are not immune to change, but the scientific ideal is that these changes are the consequence of new discoveries and theories driven by developments internal to science, and not imposed from without. It may therefore be questioned whether the repatriation movement is not a massive invasion of the freedom of scholarly and scientific disciplines to define their own goals and chart their own course.

What the activists know about the Indians' past depends almost entirely on the records of European explorers, missionaries, and settlers, and on the studies of past and present historians, ethnographers, anthropologists, and archaeologists. These scholars and scientists often thought of themselves as helping the American Indian to preserve his heritage. A great many Indians, past and present, shared or share that conviction. It would be an interesting to know whether a majority of living persons of Indian descent actually favor reburial or the continued preservation, display, and study of Indian remains and artifacts.

Sharing Control of the Past
by Larry J. Zimmerman

Scholars have been slow to realize that the scientific archaeology that sprang from Euroamerican rationalist and empiricist roots may not be the only valid archaeology. Part of the rift between archaeologists and Native Americans stems from a fundamentally different conception of the past. To archaeologists, the past can be known because it has already happened and left markers--artifacts--that give clues about it. To know the past requires that it be discovered through written sources and archaeological exploration and interpretation. To Native Americans, the idea that discovery is the only way to know the past is absurd. For the Indian interested in traditional practice and belief, the past lives in the present. Indians know the past because it is spiritually and ritually a part of daily existence and is relevant only as it exists in the present. In fact, Indians object to heavy reliance on artifacts, preferring instead to focus on people and how they experienced their lives.

Archaeologists often claim to speak for past peoples, however remote. Implicit in this claim is the notion that they, as practitioners of a science, are the only ones capable of doing so. Native Americans do not accept this and challenge the very authority of archaeological knowledge. Cecil Antone of the Gila River Indian Tribes said at a conference on reburial, "My ancestors, relatives, grandmother so on down the line, they tell you about the history of our people and it's passed on...basically, what I'm trying to say, I guess, is that archaeology don't mean nothing."

When archaeologists say that the Native American past is gone, extinct, or lost unless archaeology can find it, they send a strong message that Native Americans themselves are extinct. University of Arizona anthropologist J. Jefferson Reid believes that Native Americans see archaeological accounts of their past as a threat to traditional, Indian accounts of that same past. They fear that the archaeological version eventually will replace the traditionally constructed past and their culture, once again, will be eroded. Indians told Reid, during a recent archaeological conference, that the archaeology of the Southwest had no relevance for southwestern Indians; in their view "...archaeology was only relevant to other archaeologists."

Archaeology has been slow to recognize that epistemological shifts must be made if archaeology is to have any relevance to any group other than archaeologists. We can begin by broadening archaeological ideas about the past to include an interest in how others know the past and by rejecting the view that archaeologists are somehow the only capable stewards of it. Southern Illinois University anthropologist Jonathan D. Hill has challenged the belief that historical interpretations based on written documents are necessarily more objective, reliable, or accurate than those embodied in oral tradition. In his introduction to a volume analyzing Native South American perspectives on the past, he notes that "Although oral and non-verbal formulations cannot be literally read as direct accounts of historical processes, they can show how indigenous societies have experienced history and the on-going means by which they struggle to make sense out of complex, contradictory historical processes." He concludes that history is not ever reducible to "what really happened." This suggests that the past--the very medium in which archaeologists work--is fluid; objectivity itself changes. Accepting this notion is critical if archaeology is to accommodate Native American accounts of their history.

Nowhere have these conflicting viewpoints been more visible than in the reburial issue. Some archaeologists maintain that the past is lost with reburial. Of course information from the remains is lost, but only to the archaeologist. Those who believe that American Indians or other groups are getting preferential treatment do not understand that many of these groups have been subjected to the "preferred" views of the Western world, which includes the science of archaeology.

The idea that anyone can "save" the past is a false notion. Preservation itself reveals that permanence is an illusion. As University College-London geographer David Lowenthal has written, "Saviors of the past change it no less than iconoclasts bent on its destruction." The past is always interpreted from the perspective of the present. For archaeologists, interpretations reflect changes in theoretical viewpoints, analytical techniques, and the politics of contemporary society. New interpretations replace the old; that is, they "destroy" the past. Archaeologists construct the past, they do not reconstruct it.

Many archaeologists view the past as everyone's heritage. This implies that archaeologists, because of their special skills, are the most capable of preserving and interpreting it. Many indigenous peoples don't agree. At the 1982 meeting of the Australian Archaeological Association, Rosalind Langford, an Australian aboriginal, commented, "You...say that as scientists you have the right to obtain and study information of our culture. You...say that because you are Australians you have a right to study and explore our heritage because it is a heritage to be shared by all Australians...We say that it is our past, our culture and heritage, and forms part of our present life. As such it is ours to control and it is ours to share on our terms."

What steps should archaeologists who study native peoples take to insure an amicable working relationship? First, we should be activists in consulting with any community or group that might be affected by our work, and we shouldn't be doing it just because it is required by law or is politically correct. Rather, we should consult Native Americans because we recognize their valid interests in the past. Working with them, they will provide us with insights into our understanding of their past.

In so doing, archaeologists can share the past, rather than impose their own version of it. There are examples of archaeologists and indigenous peoples who have good working relationships. In Australia, Colin Pardoe, an osteologist studying aboriginal remains, does no excavation or analysis without intensive community involvement. He seeks permission to work on remains even if he suspects that they are not related to groups now occupying the area in which bones are found. He asks people their opinion of the research problems he is addressing. He tells them why he needs to do certain tests, and if they involve destructive techniques, he asks permission to use them. Pardoe's community reports are instructive in that they provide a mechanism for community involvement in his construction of the past. He usually has little difficulty conducting his research and he learns a great deal more in the process by sharing his study with aborigines.

Consider a recent reburial in Nebraska. The Pawnee Indians successfully collaborated with archaeologists to summarize the archaeological record of their tribe for a court case involving repatriation of human remains. At the same time Pawnee tribal historian Roger Echo-Hawk gathered previously recorded oral history and other materials pertaining to Pawnee origins and history. Since the case, archaeologist Steve Holen has worked with Echo-Hawk to compare the archaeological record and the oral history to see what concordance there might be. Echo-Hawk and Holen are learning from each other. Many Pawnee narratives are reflected in the archaeological record. Others are not. Disagreements are put aside pending further consultation; obviously, some issues may never be resolved.

Involvement of nonarchaeologists puts some control into their hands, and most archaeologists will be reluctant to relinquish control over their research. Who is willing to do this? The World Archaeological Congress (WAC) in its ethics code has taken steps to share control with indigenous peoples. The WAC code even puts the development of research into indigenous hands. For example, WAC has eight indigenous representatives on its executive committee, and the ethics code demands that WAC members work to seek representation for indigenous peoples in agencies funding or authorizing research to be certain that their views are considered as critically important in setting research standards, questions, priorities, and goals. Archaeologists do not stop developing research questions--the difference is they share them with indigenous peoples, who then become more familiar with archaeological thinking.

Collaborative efforts unquestionably will limit our cherished academic freedom. Accountability to Native Americans will create a very different discipline, one that will not be scientific according to our current standards. At the same time, this new science can and will open many investigative possibilities for us, especially in areas where we wish to understand the meaning of prehistoric events or materials. We will certainly develop a better understanding of what people's lives meant to them. We may be allowed better access to areas now closed to us, particularly in the realm of the sacred. We may better learn about a commonality of human experience that is analogous to and as valuable as any we have generated using scientific theory.

Native American peoples have been extraordinarily patient with archaeologists. They recognize that some archaeology is useful to them if applied using their rules. What archaeologists must understand is that their view of the past is peculiar to their discipline and has an impact on those they study. To communicate effectively with Native American people, archaeologists will need to learn how to share control of the past. Groups like WAC and the Society for American Archaeology have begun serious examination of what constitutes ethical practice. What is exciting about this new direction is that it does allow us the chance to become something quite different. If we don't take steps that are bold and creative in reinventing our profession, we will continue to lose access to the artifacts, sites, and people we wish to study.


© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America