Native American cultural and spiritual beliefs and the disciplines of archaeology and anthropology once occupied separate spheres.
The passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990 by Congress has built bridges that have enriched both.
The act says that any institution receiving federal funds must provide a list of its holdings, including human remains as well as funerary, sacred and cultural patrimony objects. Those organizations were then required to consult with representatives of the tribes that might be related in some way to the remains and objects, and after the lists of holdings were published in the Congressional Record, requests for repatriation could be submitted.
“There’s not a conflict between science and Native American beliefs so much as they’re different ways of knowing the world,” said assistant professor Dawn Mulhern, chairwoman of the Anthropology Department at Fort Lewis College. Mulhern has been the school’s NAGPRA coordinator for 10 years, and she worked in repatriation at the Smithsonian Institution before coming to Durango.
“For people like me, the hardest of all is the appreciation of the extent of knowledge that can be gained from these objects, and how important it is. But it’s equally as important to repatriate and how we repatriate.”
As NAGPRA approaches its 25th anniversary in November, Kathleen Fine-Dare, professor of anthropology and gender and women’s studies at FLC and author of Grave Injustice about NAGPRA, has been speaking to various organizations to commemorate the act.
“NAGPRA is probably the most powerful Native American human rights law that has been passed in the United States,” she said, stressing the cultural and spiritual significance for Native Americans. “These bones are their relatives, for whom they mourn. Many believe that their ancestors have to be reburied to achieve not only justice, but spiritual completion.”
Just the respect the act accords to Native American tribes matters, said Bridget Ambler, supervisory museum curator for the Bureau of Land Management’s Anasazi Heritage Center near Dolores.
“One of the most important parts is talking with tribes government to government,” she said. “The tribes are sovereign nations who have a right to discuss the remains and objects as next-of-kin.”
The center, which serves as one of the largest repositories of archaeological artifacts from the region, had repatriated all of the human remains and objects from its collection before Ambler began working there three years ago. She said NAGPRA has greatly increased knowledge in the field of archaeology.
“Now we talk to tribes to interpret the past,” she said. “As a byproduct of colonization, for American archaeologists, the very indigenous people they were studying were never considered credible. They were considered subjects, not contributors.”
Fine-Dare said the interdisciplinary and cross-cultural collaboration involved has been one of the challenges, and rewards, of working to repatriate remains and objects.
“You have to involve scientists in the analysis of human remains,” she said, “you have to involve experts who study Native American law, social systems, histories and cultures; and you have to involve museum specialists, geographers and archaeologists to manage this whole thing. Most importantly, you have to centrally involve Native Americans in this work.”
There were no instant solutions with NAGPRA, Ambler said, adding that it took the state of Colorado 10 years after NAGPRA’s passage to establish its processes for compliance. But even having established processes didn’t mean the work proceeded quickly.
“The biggest challenge in this area is establishing cultural affiliations when there are so many tribes,” Mulhern said. “We have to follow biological, archaeological and cultural lines of evidence, and that’s one of the most inherently challenging parts of the law.”
Fine-Dare taught an honors seminar on the act in the spring, a class that shifted Stephanie Lefthand’s view of the act.
“Prior to the class, I’d heard the elevator speech about NAGPRA,” Lefthand said. “Since the class, it’s been an emotional rollercoaster. A lot of days I’ve felt a little angry, other days I’ve been curious. As a scholar, I want to find a middle ground, but as a member of Taos Pueblo, I want to maintain the integrity of Native American traditions both above and below the ground.”