Human Remains, NAGPRA, and White Guilt

[Long day + complicated issue = long post]

Decapitated sacrificial victims from the Cahokia site........offensive?

Confession: I have an archaeology background, and I’ve dabbled in human osteology. Once, when I told this to a stranger, he turned to me and snidely remarked, “Been called a grave robber lately?”

Yes, often. As most archaeologists will tell you, the state of the media’s relationship with archaeology is abominable. It unfortunately results in the “general public” having bizarre beliefs about what archaeologists today actually do and how they evaluate evidence about the past. (I’ll talk more about this in a later post, but it’s a big deal. It affects any institution that displays archaeological specimens.)

Part of the issue is that archaeologists, as “scientists” (in a certain sense), usually have different values than 1.) the general public and 2.) the descendants of the cultures whose artifacts/bones they work with, if that group is different from their own, which it isn’t nearly as often as certain groups will have you believe.

I’m no exception to this. Human remains–wet or dry–have very little sentimental or “emotional” value to me, other than a few healthy musings on how short life really is. I’ve been semi-trained to see them in light of how much they can tell us about the past, not only of a particular culture but of humanity in general. Chemical analysis can reveal details about diet, disease, trophic levels, breastfeeding activity, and a host of other activities about people who lived 100, 500, 6,000 years ago. Even LOOKING at bones can tell you about rates of diseases like syphilis, osteoporosis, etc., and it can tentatively tell you about things like occupation and class/status differences.

I think it’s fascinating, not disgusting. And I find it hilarious that a culture that dedicates a special day to dressing up three-year-olds in skeleton and ghost costumes cringes at actual human remains or, in the case of my little museum, pictures of them.

Most little museums will never have to deal with this, but lucky us! We do. We had a skeleton come along with an artifact collection over 20 years ago, and the people running the museum at the time legally reburied it, which was the correct thing to do IN THIS CASE, for complicated reasons I won’t get into. Tribe consulted (yes, it was a Native American skeleton, probably–if that changes your opinion of this story, you’re a hypocrite), story over, remains reburied. The excavation took place in the 1940s, and we still have a very good picture of the burial “in situ” from the site, which we included in the exhibit about the collection.

Overall, the reaction has been mostly positive, with a few dissenters. I understand the dissenters’ position. It’s no secret that horrific things went on with Native American burials in previous decades, but it doesn’t happen anymore and I’m tired of paying for other people’s sins. I don’t think anyone’s saying that people/Indian nations (who are semi-sovereign entities) who can unequivocally prove descent from illegally/dubiously excavated human remains or even some “cultural” objects shouldn’t get to decide what to do with them today. As an aside to this, I want idealistic Americans to know that SOME Native American tribal governments are so corrupt that working with them is the basic equivalent of working with the Myanmar Junta. Regardless. Let’s assume the best.

But let’s not overreact. I’m convinced that nobody has ever made a good decision based on emotions, so let’s set them aside for a moment. No archaeologist today condones what was done in the past, and they’re not responsible for it. It’s time to end this stupid taboo on working with and showing human remains. I wouldn’t be angry if someone dug up my grandmother, took pictures of her bones, and displayed them–but I can see how people would be. However, I see no reason to get your undies in a bundle over someone that lived hundreds of years ago who has no known family and only a dubious “tribal” affiliation. And I’ve had it up to HERE with “white” people who trip over themselves to get the most outraged when someone even shows a PICTURE of a burial so they can look enlightened. No, you look like an tool, which you are.


This view is not popular within my discipline, which is full of people in outrage contests for the same political reasons. The funny thing is that in day-to-day cases, I often support NAGPRA issues (with a few notable exceptions). Give me 10 NAGPRA decisions in favor of the tribe, and I’ll agree with 8 of them. Seriously. It’s really the overall attitude of people toward repatriation issues–that somehow as an archaeologist, I owe something to somebody–that gets me ticked off.

Everyone has different opinions on this, and some are quite strong in the other direction. I respect that. I just ask that you think before you get outraged. What’s really at stake here? Are specific individuals going to be emotionally harmed by this display of remains/pictures of remains? If so, are they being oversensitive? (The answer might be no). What are the facts?

And the most important question of all: DOES THE OUTRAGED PERSON HAVE THE RIGHT TO SPEAK FOR THE GROUP THEY SAY THEY DO??? This is far, far more important in these issues than most people understand.

Obviously, some complex issues have been glossed over here, which I’ll write about more at some point. I think the lesson here for people running museums is that someone, somewhere is going to get offended at almost everything you do. Unless it’s reaching fever pitch, ignore it. That’s not politically correct, but it’s probably the best thing in most cases. I think too many institutions have learned that the hard way. 


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