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A controversial amendment to federal repatriation law complicates the relationship between Native Americans and archaeologists


Franz Boas, perhaps America's most influential anthropologist, admitted his excavations in the late 19th century felt akin to grave robbery. (© Bettmann/Corbis)

In 1888, Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology, traveled to British Columbia to survey tribes in the region and to build up his collection of Native American skulls, in some cases by digging in historic cemeteries. In June of that year, the man who would go on to become famous as the most prominent advocate of anthropology as a tool against racism wrote, "It is most unpleasant work to steal bones from a grave, but what is the use, someone has to do it." In those days, even the most forward-thinking archaeologists and anthropologists didn't hesitate to ship off boxes of recently buried Native American bones to gather dust on the shelves of distant museums. "It's ironic," says archaeologist Sonya Atalay of Indiana University. "As anthropologists, we know how much can be learned about a culture from looking at how they treat the dead."

In 1990, to redress more than a century of scientific indifference to Native American rights and spiritual beliefs, both houses of Congress unanimously passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The law codified how federally funded researchers and museums handle human remains and funerary objects, and required that bones and artifacts be returned to descendant communities that could demonstrate a link to them.

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Julian Smith is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.