The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) is intended to balance the interests of North American Indian tribes and scientists.
There’s a long-running scandal in the handling of the prehistoric skeleton known as Kennewick Man, which is thought to be over 9000 years old and is of great scientific interest. An Indian tribe claimed the skeleton as one of its own and refused to allow it to be studied. Despite a lack of evidence for its claim, the tribe was supported by various government agencies and other Indian tribes. Scientists who want to study the skeleton sued the government and the tribes, claiming a right to access under NAGPRA. The suit dragged on for years during which the tribes and government did not distinguish themselves by their behavior. (Typically, the defendants repeatedly insisted that tribes have the right to control the remains of their members, while they ignored requests to show a connection between the Kennewick skeleton and the tribe that claimed it.) Eventually, and only quite recently, the defendants exhausted all appeals and the scientists prevailed.
Now comes a bill, S-2843, introduced by retiring Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R, CO), that would amend NAGPRA essentially to give control of all pre-1492 human remains in North America to Indian tribes, whether or not there is any evidence of affiliation. In the words of a press release from a group opposed to the bill:
. . . the amended definition would now include all human remains that pre-date European contact (1492), even if the remains are not from Native Americans. It presumes that any remains found this century, even if 50,000 years old, are somehow related to modern American Indians and should be placed off limits to scientific study (and buried if tribal groups so wish).
S-2843 is stealth legislation designed to moot the scientists’ court victory. If enacted, it would give Indian tribes a legal choke hold over much North American anthropological research. It upsets the reasonable balance struck in the original NAGPRA, and invites the extraction of rents from scientific institutions that wish to obtain permission to do archaeological studies. It deserves wide publicity and scrutiny and should be defeated.
Moira Breen’s Kennewick Man Links (indispensable)