Point NAGPRA Spurs Potential Collaboration Between U-M Museum and Native Tribes
by Dr. Carla Sinpoli
by Kate Heflick
The Museum of Anthropology supports NAGPRA. Passed in 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is federal legislation that created a structure for the repatriation of Native American skeletal remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony in museum collections to Tribes to which they are related. The regulations sought to balance two indisputable goods: the first, the good of Tribes seeking to reclaim the remains of ancestors and funerary and sacred objects housed in museum collections; and the second, the good of scholars, museums and the larger public interested in and committed to the study of the human past and the preservation and care of objects that inform both on our shared human story and on the diverse cultures and people who inhabited our world hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of years ago.
The NAGPRA regulations placed obligations on museums – to inventory and report on their NAGPRA-relevant collections to Tribes and to the national NAGPRA office in the US Department of Interior, to consult with Tribes, and to work, wherever possible, to determine the “cultural affiliation” of collections in their keeping (cultural affiliation is defined as “a relationship of shared group identity which can be reasonably traced historically or prehistorically between a present day Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization and an identifiable earlier group,” and is established when a preponderance of multiple lines of evidence reasonably leads to such a conclusion (see http://www.nps.gov/history/nagpra/).
The NAGPRA regulations also recognize that not all human remains or NAGPRA-related objects can be affiliated with present day Tribes. Some may be too old or have too little information associated with them on where they came from or when they date to, and, in many cases, ancient or prehistoric archaeological “cultures” cannot be straightforwardly mapped onto contemporary or historically documented tribal groups and territories. New research and additional information may help to establish affiliation in the future, but until then such remains and objects belong to a category known as “cultural unidentifiable.” It is these “Cultural Unidentifiable Human Remains” (CUHR), particularly those from the state of Michigan, that have been the source of tensions and conflicts here at U-M. Who do they belong to? How does one decide? Should they be retained by museums or transferred to Tribes, and, if so, which Tribes? How should competing claims for them be reconciled when cultural affiliation cannot be determined?
In May 2010, new NAGPRA regulations specifically addressing CUHR went into effect. They establish criteria and procedures for making decisions about the “disposition” of culturally unidentifiable human remains. The regulations, which the University is now working to implement, no longer acknowledge the “good” of knowledge and research on the past; instead, they affirm that all NAGPRA-related human remains should be transferred to Tribes, and that the determination of recipient groups, in the absence of evidence for cultural affiliation, should be based on historic territories and geography. The Museum and University have adhered to the NAGPRA regulations since they became law and will continue to do so; though I personally admit to sadness that research on the past is no longer considered a “good” under the expanded regulations, and regret the losses to knowledge that will inevitably occur as a result.
I recognize that this statement has been, thus far, a dry and scholarly treatise rather than an impassioned defense of science, archaeology, or the Museum of Anthropology. And I do this deliberately. This is a complicated topic and serious discussions and engagements among individuals with differing perspectives are not well served by polarization or impassioned protestations or yet another angry editorial. Especially in a university community that is dedicated to serious and respectful engagement with complex issues.
I am an archaeologist, and I come to my discipline with a profound respect for the rich diversity of the human past, and a commitment that the past is both knowable and worth knowing. My current research focuses on the past of southern India, in a period beginning some 3000 years ago. In India, as here, archaeology is controversial – as different stories of the past have been passionately debated (sometimes violently) and claimed by various nationalist and religious communities. Yet the archaeological record – the places, objects, plant and animal remains and, yes, the remains of human bodies – provides powerful and unique material evidence of the past that we can use to scientifically and rigorously assess these completing claims and examine how past societies came to be in different times and different places. This is, to me at least, a good and worthwhile thing to do. Much of our human story occurred before people wrote things down; many aspects of past cultures, including the taken for granted aspects of daily life, were never the subject of oral histories or religious knowledge passed down from parent to child over generations; and some people who lived in the past have been forgotten and have no descendents to speak for them. As such, archaeological evidence provides the essential way, indeed often the only way, to study important aspects of our human story over the many millennia of our history.
The Museum of Anthropology cares for more than three million archaeological and ethnographic objects and biological remains (plant, animal, and human) from all over the world. Approximately one hundredth of one percent of these fall under NAGPRA; the vast majority of our collections derive from habitation and productions sites, and many come from international contexts. However, despite their small numbers, the NAGPRA-related remains are nonetheless valuable for studying the human story, here in Michigan and in the others areas of the United States from which these materials derive.
So why do archaeologists study human remains and associated objects and evidence for behaviors related to how past humans treated their dead? And why is the public fascinated with these remains – as we see in the ongoing interest with the burial of the Egyptian boy king Tutankhamen, or the tomb of China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, with its famous terracotta warriors, or the remains of ancient Romans from Pompeii and Herculaneum?
There are many answers to these questions – related to the importance all cultures attribute to death and its social acknowledgment through ritual practice and to the fact that the skeletal remains provide unique evidence for documenting individual lives (something almost impossible to do from most archaeological evidence) – the illnesses or injuries individuals suffered, the work they performed, their relatedness to other individuals and descendent communities, their vulnerability or resistance to inherited diseases.
Ultimately of course, the solutions to current tensions over repatriation lie not in an “either/or” dichotomy but in the “with” and “and” of cooperation. To paraphrase Senator John McCain, one of the original sponsors of the 1990 legislation, we all have an interest in both respecting the rights of Native communities and in learning about the past. Collaborations among archaeologists and Tribes (including tribal archaeologists), taking place in many regions of our country (including Michigan), chart a way forward. Important examples include recent studies in Alaska in which tribal members provided DNA samples to anthropologists for a collaborative study of the biological relations of contemporary individuals and communities with the 10,300 year old remains of a man excavated in British Columbia; or a decision by the Southern Cheyenne Tribe that culturally affiliated funerary objects from a 19th century child burial should remain at the Smithsonian to – in the words of Gordon Yellowman, the Tribe’s NAGPRA delegate – educate “our children and future generations.” I and others in the Museum of Anthropology look forward to tamping down the current drama and recriminations; to moving beyond the negative characterizations of individuals and groups that make it exceedingly difficult to openly acknowledge, understand, and address what are some very real and important differences; and to making our way forward in this important and difficult terrain in collaboration with Tribes from Michigan and the other 36 states from which the Museum currently holds NAGPRA-related human remains and objects.
 The explicit language establishing priorities for the the Disposition of Culturally Unidentifiable Human Remains and Associated Funerary Objects” establishes the following order: (i) the Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization from whose tribal land, at the time of excavation or removal, the human remains were removed; or (ii) The Indian Tribe or tribes that are recognized as aboriginal to the area from which the human remains were removed. Aboriginal occupation may be recognized as a final judgment of the Indian Claims Commission or the United States Court of Claims, or a treaty, Act of Congress, or Executive Order.”
 Clouse, Abby, 2009, The repatriation of a Southern Cheyenne burial and the contingencies of authenticity. Journal of Material Culture 14: 169-188.
The 2010 revisions to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) requires museums and institutions that receive federal funding, including the University of Michigan, to return all Native American human remains and cultural objects excavated or discovered on federal or tribal land. This extends to returning remains and artifacts already in the possession of such institutions. The language in the original piece of legislation only required tribally affiliated remains to be returned; U-M made little attempt to repatriate over 1000 unidentified remains in their possession while other institutions, like Michigan State University, played an active role in identification and repatriation. It was not until under President Obama’s administration that NAGPRA’s intent was made clear – all remains must be returned and identified. To identify the affiliation of these remains and items, the institutions holding them are responsible for consulting lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations by sending notices to these groups describing the cultural artifacts. This inventory applies to all remains and cultural objects acquired at any time, before or after November 16, 1990 when the original Act passed. The recent clarifications to NAGPRA highlight the necessity of archeologists and other research institutions to fully respect Native American rights.
It seems absurd that NAGPRA needed to be enacted at all. If there are any remains in possession of a federally funded institution that have a known affiliation to a tribe, it should go without question that any funerary or sacred objects-objects of cultural patrimony-and especially human remains should be in possession of the known tribe, rather than in storage or on display in museum collections. The University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology identified NAGPRA material in over 250 of their collections, human remains and funerary from 15 archaeological sites, and more than 300 items from their ethnology and ethnobotanical collections. Since the original NAGPRA’s passing, human remains of 32,000 individuals along with hundreds of thousand of funerary objects have been returned to their associated tribes. U-M is far behind. I applaud their compliance with recent revisions, as returning remains from these sites is extremely important to Native American rights.
The fact that so many Native American graves with a known tribal affiliation have been excavated is appalling. Historically, protection by state law only extended to marked graves. Problems arise due to the tendency of Native American graves to traditionally be unmarked or marked with biodegradable material or the planting of something above the grave, rendering them virtually unmarked. Despite these older graves lacking markers, their importance to a tribe remains no less important; it signifies the connection of the people to the land. There is no more spiritual way to show a certain area of land is both yours and your ancestors than by having your relatives remain in it forever. Removing human and cultural remains from a tribe’s land serves to further remove them from their ancestral history. Furthermore, burial practices of tribes are strongly joined with their religion and removing these remains from their burial is a desecration of the tribe’s religious beliefs.
In attempting to find a balance between the concern of Native Americans to have their ancestral remains be treated respectfully and scientists’ interest to study those remains and cultural objects, the statute groups the remains and objects in two categories: inadvertent discovery and planned excavation. If remains are inadvertently discovered, then consultation with the tribes connected to the land where the discovery was made is immediately required. If planned excavations may affect burials, federal officials must consult with the tribal officials during the planning of the project. In the case of archaeologists, NAGPRA allows a short time period for analysis of findings before the artifacts are required to be returned to their associated tribal group. Upon determining that the remains are Native American, analysis cannot be continued without documented consultation or tribal consent.
NAGPRA is an extremely important piece of legislation for Native American rights. Arguments that human remains and cultural objects should remain in possession of museum collections in order to be further studied are unethical and preposterous. The removal of these remains and objects is most often an infringement on religious practices and therefore done in violation of the First Amendment. Additionally, the magnitude of remains that were previously being withheld without consequence from their tribes is enormous. Many remains have been in possession of research institutions for decades, so the argument that they must be kept for research is frustrating. Any research proposed by archeologists that is pertinent to these remains could have already been done. Consequently, it can only be assumed that they have instead remained in storage rather than being researched or returned. The rights of Native tribes need to be more elevated and respected. The revisions to NAGPRA not only mandate this, but also subvert a legacy of archeologists devaluing or disregarding Native American rights.
About the Issue
Point author: Dr. Carla Sinopoli is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan and the director and curator of Asian Archeology and the Museum of Anthropology.
Counterpoint author: Kate Heflick is now concentrating in Program in the Environment, but had an original major in Anthropological Archaeology. She has participated as a student and a research assistant in an archaeological field course with Professor Meghan Howey, a scholar on Native American issues, at the U-M Biological Station.
Edited by: Lauren Opatowski and Lexie Tourek
Cover by: Benjamin English