Tribes trump researchers regarding Native remains
Currently, museums, universities and federal government agencies hold more than 100,000 Native American remains of inconclusive cultural affiliation. Though the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 mandates that remains linked to present-day tribes must be transferred to their keeping, culturally unidentifiable bones have long been housed at various institutions and studied by researchers.
In some cases, tribes have spent decades trying to retrieve bones they consider belonging to their ancestors. Now, a new federal regulation is putting the weight of the law on their side by requiring that entities retaining Native remains notify the tribes on whose present or ancestral land they were discovered and turn over the relics upon request.
As recently reported in the Washington Post, the issue is a divisive one. Indigenous groups applaud the new regulation for allowing them to collect and respectfully harbor or inter the relics of those they deem kin. On the other side, researchers worry that a rich source of knowledge is being removed, including insight into the health, migratory patterns and life ways of ancient peoples, even medical issues that could help today’s indigenous communities.
According to Arizona State University archaeology professor Keith Kintigh, “There really isn’t any balance anymore.” Kintigh, the associate director of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, noted, “The public and scientific interest in (the remains) no longer have any weight.”
Institutions are taking a closer look at the Native remains in their care, and some, like the University of Michigan, have already begun the process of transferring them to tribes.