Adelaide, South Australia, December 16, 2007
The World Archaeological Congress (WAC) supports a proposed rule by the U.S. Department of Interior that will help to clarify terms defined when the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed in 1990.
NAGPRA now requires federally-recognized tribes to demonstrate cultural affiliation in order for federal agencies and federally-funded museums and universities to transfer control of human remains, sacred or funerary objects, and other culturally important artifacts.
Although NAGPRA has worked reasonably well and is supported by many tribes, archaeologists, and museums, “cultural affiliation” has forced a definition onto Native American people that comes mostly from anthropologists and archaeologists. Affiliation in the sense of being linked by genetic or archaeological evidence often is difficult to prove with non-scientific evidence such as oral traditions used more commonly by Indigenous peoples.
The draft regulations, published by the Department of the Interior on October 16, 2007, make some changes in the law. Instead of affiliation, “cultural relationship” will become a key principle for decisions about returning culturally sensitive items. This simple change allows greater flexibility in decision-making and removes what many Native Americans have seen as a word with strictly scientific meaning that often stands in the way of repatriation.
“Some archaeologists seem to think that the proposed regulations would undercut NAGPRA and do great harm to the archaeological record of the United States,” said Claire Smith, WAC President, “but that is the same thing many archaeologists used to say about NAGPRA. It was hardly the end of the line for archaeology or museums. In many cases where
American Indian people, archaeologists, and museums built good working relationships, access to archaeological information actually improved! To say that the proposed regulations would harm archaeology or NAGPRA is just plain misguided.”
“There is a lot of fear that museums or archaeologists would somehow have to say who is or isn’t Indian or how close the relationship is,” said Larry Zimmerman, WAC Vice President and early advocate for the return of remains, “but that’s clearly incorrect. What it will do is allow for more remains that are now called culturally unidentified to be returned to descendents and treated with respect instead of being on some laboratory shelf.”
Background: The World Archaeological Congress (WAC) is a non-governmental, not-for-profit organization and is the only elected international body of practicing archaeologists. WAC promotes interest in the past in all countries, to recognize the historical and social role and political context of archaeology, and endeavours to make archaeological studies relevant to the wider community. WAC acknowledges and recognizes Indigenous methodologies for interpreting, curating, managing and protecting Indigenous cultural heritage.
President, World Archaeological Congress (WAC)
Department of Archaeology, Flinders University, Adelaide, South Australia
PO Box 2100, Adelaide. SA 5001. Australia
Telephone: +61(0)8 8201 2336
Vice-President, World Archaeological Congress (WAC)
Department of Anthropology and Museum Studies, IUPUI,
433 Cavanaugh Hall, Indianapolis IN 46228.