Native American Rights to Anthropological Finds

The North American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGRA) is being amended.  This is the act, set in 1990, that made it possible for Native American tribes to exert claims over human bones found that had “cultural” significance.  I put “cultural” in quotes because it’s been a point of contention as to what exactly we mean by that.

Following years of pressure from Native American groups, the new rule
would give them the right to claim specimens without a cultural link if
they had been found close to tribes’ historic lands. “This is a major
departure, going way beyond the intent of the original law,” says John
O’Shea, a curator at the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology
in Ann Arbor, which has about 1,400 specimens considered culturally
unaffiliated. Overall, there are more than 124,000 culturally
unidentified ancient human remains in US institutions; although
estimates vary widely, at least 15% of these could be affected by the
new rule.

Now they don’t even need a cultural link.  If bones from someone living 2000 years ago are found near tribal historic lands, they can be claimed.  That’s like me stopping an excavation of a Roman site on the grounds of it being close to my “tribe’s” historic lands. 

I was against much of what is in this act all along, but now I’m just blown away.  I understand that if there is a clear and obvious cultural link to a set of remains, then a tribe should get rights over it (it’s like if someone wanted to dig up George Washington’s remains, lot’s of Americans would be mad).  If the remains are recent (last few hundred years), or are clearly from a still active culture, then leave them alone.

But, come on.  At some point, science has to be done.  My families roots are from Scotland.  This is where some of the more famous “Bog Bodies” have been found.  Should I file a complaint that someone dug up my ancestor and that it violates my cultural tradition?

In my opinion, anything beyond 200 years should be fair game, I don’t care what your culture is.  So, if you want to dig up George Washington, or Thomas Jefferson to see if you can get any DNA off of them, be my guest.  Similarly, the only way to know about the prehistory of the people of North America is to do science on what we find.  We can’t do that if the bones get reburied. 

[By the way, the picture at the top of the page is NOT a Native American.  It’s a bog body found “near” where my ancestral lands were.]


6 responses to “Native American Rights to Anthropological Finds

  1. Nick, our Native Americans of course have more than ‘cultural’ reasons for proprietory claims over ancestor remains, they have religious imperatives that compel them to practice rites of honor indefinitely.
    Now in earlier days, conflicts over bones were resolved with weapons or the march of time. Today, with the double edged sword of media & technology, these heachaches/challenges arise after thousands of years, past current memory’s relevance.
    And this is where we find the almighty power of religion challenging the almighty power of science.
    But then there is the spectre of History, changing in the background, pouting it has been ignored.
    I propose that skeletons older than 1,000 years should be beyond tribal religious claims, they belong to History, and Science can teach us what History wants us to know. Religion still has its rites of honor.
    By the way, you wouldn’t be too surprised if there were Native American DNA in your Scottish tree, would you?

    • Of course you’re right. The religious reasons are more compelling for the Native Americans than the more generic cultural ones. But, since we live in the US, I’m uncomfortable allowing those reasons to influence the Law too much. Separation of Church and State is something I am fanatic about – especially when it comes to science.

      Religion is, by its very definition, anti-rational. That is not to say that it is “dumb” or something. I just mean that, strictly speaking, what is and is not rational is not the point when it comes to religion. And if rationality conflicts with the teachings, then the teaching win.

      That is not a good system upon which to base our laws. Laws should be based on some type of rational assessment of the situation at hand, not on tradition, or cultural inertia, or religious fervor.

      Christians have a compelling religious reason to keep evolution OUT of the schools and the ten commandments IN the courts. But, that is not good enough in my book. I don’t care what their religion is telling them. Evolution should be taught in schools and the ten commandments should be kept out of the courts.

      Where do we draw the line?

      That’s why, for me, a 100 or 200 year cut off is plenty. That lets you go back just far enough into your own family tree, but doesn’t allow for the kind of over-the-top religious fervor that is required to believe that you need to protect the burial rights of people dead for over 2000 years.

      As a religious doctrine, that is fine. But, as a law in a country that is supposed to free from religious influence, it isn’t.

      OH, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I have Native American blood in me (or any race for that matter). Humans have cross breeded since time immemorial. And, if I DO have some Native American blood, then I give my official vote right now for letting scientists do their work on my ancestors. 🙂

  2. But of course the church and state separation are fundamental (intentional misuse of religious context) planks of the constitution, and under attack by theocratic busybodies who have better things to do with their time, such as performing good works for the needy, following the example of a certain, um, exalted one.
    However, we must respect religious culture while not becoming its victim.
    And, of course, “some argue” that Science has replaced Religion, or at least Environmentalism, and there are indeed plenty of people who replaced religious fervor with science fervor, denouncing those who don’t believe the same way as infidels.
    Which brings us back to setting course for moderation and restraint.

  3. I draw a line between ‘respect’ for religion and enacting laws that ‘favor’ religion. That’s what this law does. It prioritizes a particular religions belief system.

    Calling science a religion is a bit silly, though you’re right that “some” called it just that. But, those “some” are usually creationists who simply want to avoid real arguments that involve facts.

    Our government was designed to be secular, not poly-religious. Secular means that we don’t encode ANY religious beliefs into our laws, but instead base our laws on reason and (dare I say it) good science. Instead, what often happens is – in our attempt to be fair to all religions – we do the opposite. We include bits and pieces of all religions into our laws out of “respect” and tradition. This makes the government’s laws far from secular. They become poly-religious, an amalgamation of different religious beliefs that have nothing whatsoever to do with reason or science.

    Any law that is based primarily on a particular religious belief has no business being a law at all.

    Again this is why I think we should treat burial like we tread copyright laws. You get 150 years. After that, your remains become public domain.

  4. I disagree whole heartedly with your comments and find your comparison of discovery of European remains in Euroupe to the indiginous peoples of North American spurious reasoning. It has long been identified that the Indiginous people of North America were the sole inhabitants of North america aand their claim to any and all remains here would and should be solely theirs no matter what age or where they are buried. as to you making a claim to your remains in your ancestral home i would think that most North Americans of European descent woulod have a real problem if Indiginous people of North america went to Europe and started digging up Ancestral graves and then sticking them in their own cultural centers for study/appreciation or what have you.

    i think the problem lies in your lack of understanding of a non european world view and coming from a dominant cultural background so used to setting the presedence and standards for society/

    tl;dr : Indians and white ppl have different world views, indians have a longstanding relationship to the land and maintain their cultural practices from the time of their first existance in north americsa that a non native will have difficulty understanding.

    • I appreciate you comments. And while I totally disagree with you, I think your points represent what many people likely feel. So, having them expressed here is good.

      But, let me clarify. My views have nothing to do with a European cultural bias. Instead, they have everything to do with an “Athiest” bias.

      I don’t believe in any God, spirits, a human soul, etc. That is, I don’t buy that there is anything to our “ancestors” other than bones. And their bones are no different than dinosaur bones.

      This is why when I die, I don’t care what happens to my body. It’s just a body. Once I’m dead, that’s it. I’m an animal, nothing more. i don’t say that to make humans sound unimportant or something. It’s just the facts (as I see them). We don’t bury dogs, or goats. we don’t cry foul when a Mammoth bone is pulled from the ground. So, why do it when a Homo sapien bone is pulled from the ground. Should we get angry when a Neanderthal is pulled from the ground?

      Any argument for cultural rights over long long long dead people is motivated by some kind of religious belief in a metaphysical world. Having a “connection” with your ancestors counts as a metaphysical belief.

      From a purely atheistic standpoint, none of us should “feel” a “connection” with our ancestors any more than we do with our true ancestor Australopithecus. Lucy was our ancestor long before some dead dude from 1000 years ago. But, no one is arguing to keep her remains buried.

      With respect, again, this is not at all about race or nationality or ethnicity. It’s about religion.

      I’m not saying people aren’t entitled to have these religious beliefs. They certainly are. But, any government that purports to separate religion from law cannot base a law on religious feelings. As soon as we do that, we might as well stop teaching evolution in school.

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