I’m a scientist. I seek to know this universe in its own terms, without recourse to personal or sacred knowledge or supernatural explanations. I observe. I feel the wonder of an unexpected outcome and the satisfaction of a new theory that explains my observations in a way that makes more sense than previous attempts. Nevertheless, I know that I conduct my business in the context of a pluralistic society, even if others don’t want to accept that view.
Unfortunately, ‘scientists’ have always wanted to assert what you might call their ‘objective distance’ from the scientific subject, with the result that they’ve done so in a way that frequently trod on the feelings and beliefs of others. Those who share my love of the past know that for many of the indigenous people of the world an ‘archaeologist’ is the equivalent of ‘grave robber.’
To say that we scientists have been ‘tone deaf’ in these matters is an understatement of the lowest order. For decades we ignored the pleas for respect and for a ‘hands off’ approach to the ancestors of present-day indigenous people. We cloaked our desecration of other peoples’ ancestors in what we called ‘the interests of science.’ And what haven’t we done to denigrate others’ beliefs about how the dead should be treated, calling them superstition, or worse? Imagine walking up to someone brought up in the Judaeo-Christian tradition and saying to that person, ‘Your beliefs about the dead and the afterlife are superstition and therefore we propose to exhume a random sample of your graveyard’ for the scientific information it can yield.’ You wouldn’t dare. And d’you wanna know why? Because they have immense power in this society. Not so, those we colonized.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA) was the first time that the American public officially acknowledged the sanctity of the dead in the worldview of present-day Native Americans. NAGPRA specified how and when the remains gathered in the name of science should be identified and returned to the people who demonstrably shared a continuity of culture with the dead. Sadly, NAGPRA included a loophole. Those remains that didn’t share a continuity of culture with present people, or which were very old and thus unlikely to have been ancestral to the present-day descendants of the European invasion, were in a ‘gray’ area.
And so it is with great pleasure that today I learned of recent legislation governing those ‘gray’ remains held in collections across the United States. The Associated Press reports that in 2010 the U.S. Department of the Interior clarified the law regarding what were termed the ‘culturally unidentifiable’ remains. And now the same institutions that reluctantly repatriated the majority of their collections under NAGPRA are busying themselves with the rest. Protests are heard in the present circumstances, but they’re nothing close to the chatter that one had to listen to in the 1980s and 90s over NAGPRA.
At that time there was much hand-wringing and whining about the ‘loss’ of the ‘scientifically valuable,’ ‘irreplaceable’ collections from Berkeley to Cambridge. All of those voices allowed that, of course, Native Americans had ‘lost’ their dead due to our depredations, that the remains possessed something other than ‘scientific value’ for the descendants, and that, certainly the dead are ‘irreplaceable’ regardless of whose side you’re on. But for years those allowances were made while in practice those same scientists were helping to perpetuate the oppression of Native Americans that had been unleashed by Columbus’s hapless encounter with a ‘New World.’
I imagine there’ll be those among you on both sides of the razor-wire fence in this matter. I don’t wish to spark a debate. I welcome your comments. But I will not involve myself in what is essentially a deeply divisive disagreement. I prefer reasoned argument. And I think that Native Americans, First Nations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and others of the world’s indigenous people have the trump card in any argument relating to the dead of colonized territories. And I can sum it up this way.
I know that those dead are not my ancestors.
As such, I respect what I consider to be the fundamental human right to have the final say in the disposition of one’s ancestors’ remains (and their mortuary-associated belongings). To do otherwise would be to abrogate my humanity. Make of that what you will.