They say, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I don’t know who they are or were, but they’ve got a point. It’s very easy to try and fix things only to have them turn out worse than before due to unexpected consequences. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) fits neatly into this category.
NAGPRA was surely written with good intentions. After centuries of treasure hunters, hobbyists and professional archaeologists raiding the burial places of their ancestors, Native Americans should be entitled to participate in determining what is done with the physical remains and artifacts, which collectively make up their cultural heritage. This is made even more important due to the fact that so much of the cultural variability and uniqueness has been lost due to economic exploitation and periodic efforts, such as the Dawes Act of 1887, to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream Anglo-american culture.
However, the archaeological horror stories surrounding NAGPRA are many. It’s been my (limited) experience that at least one usually gets told in the field, especially when you are working near a relatively large tribe like the Seneca. My “favorite” involves the repatriation of remains to a tribe, which, if I recall correctly was located in or around the Allegheny Valley. (Please forgive the lack of specifics. This is an anecdote and some time has passed since I heard it.) NAGPRA allowed for this tribe to demand the repatriation of the remains before archaeologists could conduct a thorough investigation. However, tribe to which the remains were repatriated was likely responsible for the genocide of the group to which this individual actually belonged. Based on previously gathered evidence, this tribe had moved into the area some time ago and wiped out its previous inhabitants. Their ancestors murdered his people and they are given first say as to how his remains will be handled, which begs the question, “What rightful claim did they have to these remains?” The obvious answer is none.
Then why request repatriation at all? The answer is simple…politics. Tribes have been known to argue over the provenience of remains, because their possession lends credence to claims of historic and/or prehistoric occupation of the lands in which they were found. For groups, which have regularly been stripped of their ancestral homes and forced onto tiny, inhospitable and unproductive parcels of land, this is a big deal. Many tribal members live below the poverty line and greater recognition can lead to improved commerce, land acquisition, etc.. It has been established that those with less means are more likely to concern themselves with the present than planning for the future. Thus, from both psycho-sociological and purely intuitive perspectives, it’s understandable that groups struggling to feed their families would be more inclined to seek immediate gains than to worry about the restoration of past cultures.
Nevertheless, NAGPRA poses a very real danger to the preservation of the cultural diversity, which once defined North America. In spite of it’s noble goal, the priorities of those it seeks to help are at odds with both its intentions and those of the academic community who are bound to abide by it. Preferably, this piece of legislation might one day be repealed and replaced by one that better addresses the needs of both Native Americans and archaeologists seeking to reconstruct the past. However, until the struggles faced by modern native populations are alleviated, I doubt that Congress will redress this faulty attempt at reparation.