The issue of reburial

The so called reburial issue is a significant struggle faced by archaeologists around the world and has been handled in many different ways with varying degrees of success. In the United States we most often hear of struggles facing modern archaeology due to NAGPRA regulations.

Passed in the 1990s the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is a very complex document, but essentially it states that any Native American remains, or culturally significant artifacts must be returned to the modern affiliated tribe. It also provides protection for burials themselves, and is the reason many North American archaeologists dread the accidental discovery of a prehistoric burial.

Most of the time NAGPRA works positively, helping to foster and rebuild the relationship between archaeologists and Native groups, and ensure that proper respect is given to these groups who have been so severely victimized in the past. However, there are times when NAGPRA can lead to significant controversy. One of the most famous examples is the case of Kennewick Man. These remains, discovered in Kennewick, Washington in 1996 sparked a nationwide controversy between archaeologists seeking to study the remains, which was one of the most complete prehistoric skeletons ever found, and local native groups who wanted immediate reburial of the remains under the guidelines of NAGPRA. A years-long court struggle ensued with the major argument being “can modern tribes claim ancestry to an individual who lived around 9000 years in the past?” In the end some study of the remains was permitted and ultimately DNA analysis demonstrated a close (but not necessarily direct) relation to the Umatilla tribe of Washington. However, Kennewick Man is still an important example of a major problem with NAGPRA. Does geographic proximity immediately indicate tribal affiliation between an ancient individual and a modern group?

The history of the world is filled with instances were an outside group overtook an area and displaced the original occupants, and America is certainly no exception. European colonizers are the most obvious example, but the archaeological record shows many cases of new cultures moving in and overtaking the old in prehistory. Even if it was simply a case of the original group dying out or moving on and a new group moving in, does the new group have some claim to the remains left behind by their predecessors? This is a very thorny issue, but it is one that is not well addressed by the current regulations of NAGPRA.

The most obvious solution would be DNA evidence, but in many cases when prehistoric remains are allowed to be studied by archaeologists analysis excludes any sort of destructive testing (like DNA sampling.) Even in cases like Kennewick man where some relatedness can be shown, with 9,000 years separating him from the modern Umatilla tribe, does this DNA similarity correspond to tribal affiliation? With such a large time gap, many events could explain the similarity, like one group taking over another and incorporating female prisoners of war into the population. Although any speculation in this manner would be pure guessing, could we not also say that placing such an ancient individual within any modern tribe would also be a form of speculation?

Some sort of protection for the remains and cultural heritage of Native groups in North America is absolutely necessary, but NAGPRA itself has many flaws when it comes to complicated cases like Kennewick man. These issues need to be addressed for the sake of future progress. It is the duty of the archaeologist to respect current Native Cultures and their history, but also to reveal the truth of these prehistoric cultures, even if it is an ugly truth. Modern people around the world prefer to ignore any sort of wrongdoing perpetrated by their direct ancestors, but to do so would be ignoring a significant feature of human history. After all, by ignoring history, we doom ourselves to repeat it.

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