The Science of Grave Robbing

A law revision complicates the already-strained relationship between Native Americans and archaeologists


Memaloose Island

Image by Flickr user: glennwilliamspdx / Creative Commons

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“It is most unpleasant work to steal bones from a grave,” said famed archaeologist Franz Boas in 1888 as he dug up Native American skulls for study.

In 1990 the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) attempted to remedy more than a hundred years of mistreatment, however well-intentioned, of aboriginal remains. The law required federally funded researchers and museums to return artifacts and human bones to tribes that could demonstrate a meaningful link to them.

A recent amendment to NAGPRA is shaking up the arrangement, reports Julian Smith in Archaeology (Jan.-Feb. 2011). Through the 2010 revision, all Native American remains—even those that don’t have a tie to a particular community—are to be part of the repatriation process.

Of the 157,000 Native American and Native Hawaiian bodies held in federally funded collections, approximately 42,000 had been returned to or identified with a tribe by 2009. With the new amendment now active, the remaining 115,000 culturally unidentifiable (CUI) human remains are essentially up for grabs. “Any tribe whose historic territory passes the test can claim ownership, even without the sort of demonstrable cultural connection the original law required,” writes Smith.

While the relationship between Native Americans and archaeologists has always been strained, the new amendment further complicates it. In the eyes of Native tribes, it is necessary to respect the remains of their ancestors, with reburial being the best outcome. Archaeologists and educators, however, see the scholarly value of these ancient bones and fear that returning them is imprudent and will be a devastating loss to science.

You’d almost think it was their graves that had been robbed.

Cover-165-thumbnailThis article first appeared in the May-June 2011 issue of Utne Reader.