Opening America's skeleton closets
More than 116,000 skeletons of Native American ancestry sit idle on museum shelves today. Their fate — long unknown — has finally been settled.
On Friday, a new regulation will establish a process to return Native American human remains that have not been affiliated with a federally recognized tribe. This legal rule fulfills the promise of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which already has laid the groundwork for the return of 32,000 Native American skeletons. The new rule affects hundreds of museums and tribes across the United States.
The panic has already set in. As the journal Nature recently reported, "researchers fear that this could empty museum collections." An Indian Country Today article suggests that scientists may sue to challenge the rule.
Resistance to repatriation is based on the false assumption that human bones are merely scientific "specimens." But the tangible vestiges of a human life have a distinctive power. From Buddhist cremations to Christian burials, cultures around the globe acknowledge the body's spiritual vitality, even in death. For centuries, Western common law has affirmed that human skeletons are not "property" that can be taken without consent.
Yet, these views have not been fairly extended to Native Americans over the last 500 years. American Indian graves have been systematically pillaged since the first colonial encounters. In addition to scientific expeditions, many Native American skeletons come from massacre sites and outright plunder.
Despite Native Americans' vast diversity of cultural beliefs, they have consistently called for their ancestors' return and reburial. NAGPRA has already facilitated the return of thousands of affiliated remains, but until now the law has been mute on those Native American skeletons that lack a demonstrable relationship to living kin or a federally recognized tribe. Museums have failed to affiliate all the remains in their collections for different reasons, including poor record-keeping and inadequate consultation. This new rule establishes a reasonable process by which these bones can at last be reverently returned to the earth.
The alarmist faction overlooks that this legal rule has been two decades in the making. In fact, since 1994, institutions and government agencies — as varied as Grand Canyon National Park and the Detroit Institute of Arts — have asked the secretary of the Interior 82 times for special permission to return more than 4,000 unaffiliated human remains. Over the last two years, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science has consulted with 121 tribes over unaffiliated remains — and found common ground.
The new rule is consistent with NAGPRA's legislative intent that extends a basic human right — the right to control one's own body — to Native Americans. NAGPRA is best understood as Indian law, enacted for the benefit of Indian people.
Still, the new rule does not mandate the return of an estimated 1 million associated funerary objects in museums. Imagine if an archaeologist ransacked your grandmother's grave, and then only gave back her bones while keeping the dress she was buried in.
No doubt, some research opportunities are lost with repatriation. But science does not trump all other interests. Morality and justice limit science, as they should.
In turn, through the consultation process, fresh information and insights are discovered. Relationships of trust and mutual respect have flowered, creating novel understandings of Native American culture and history. These gains are far greater than the losses suggested by NAGPRA's antagonists.
Museums must take up the challenge of repatriation, embracing the spirit of NAGPRA, to find equitable and just solutions to the tangled legacy of collecting human remains. Museums will not have a future with Native America until they finally confront their past.
Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Ph.D., is the curator of Anthropology and NAGPRA officer at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.