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The Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act was signed into law on November 1990 by President George Bush. This legislation is the result of decades of effort by American Indians to protect the burial sites of their ancestors against grave desecration and to recover the remains of ancestors and sacred cultural objects in the possession or under the control of federal agencies and museums. In November 1993, museums holding certain Native American artifacts were required to prepare written summaries of their collections for distribution to culturally affiliated tribes. In November 1995, museums were required to prepare detailed inventories of their Native American collection. This act is historically significant because it represents a fundamental change in social attitudes toward Native people by museum curators, the scientific community, and Congress. Congress attempted to strike a balance between the interest in scientific examination of skeletal remains and the recognition that Native Americans have a religious and spiritual reverence for the remains of their ancestors (4).
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act established Indian nations as the owners of Native American cultural objects, including human remains, which were found on Federal land. It requires that the American Indians provide substantial amounts of information to validate their claims. However, only federally recognized tribes are recognized under this act, so if you are an unrecognized tribe good luck claiming anything that belongs to you. After this, the existing anthropological literature will be consulted. In some instances, Indians will disagree with the literature and take steps to correct it. Indians are also likely to provide additional information that had not yet been documented. The interpretations will be written from the perspective of the claiming tribe, how they view the world, and their perception of significance of objects in religious ceremonial rites. While some might raise the question of scientific objectivity, no one will deny that this perspective had often been lacking in the literature. These interpretations are bound to bring about new insights which will challenge earlier assumptions (5).
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Native Americans are extremely spiritual and have strict culture beliefs, rather than scientific beliefs. The culture, values, and traditions of native people amount to more than crafts and carvings. Their respect for the wisdom of their elders, their concept of family responsibilities extending beyond the nuclear family, their respect for the environment, and their willingness to share everything that they have in their possession is over whelming. All Native Americans from the Stone Age to the modern era knew that death from hunger, disease, and enemies were never far away. The various death customs and beliefs, which first evolved during the invasions of Asians from Siberia to Alaska across a land bridge during the last Ice Age, gave them the means to cope with that experience. Individual tribes maintained their own death customs and adapted them to their regional environments into which they migrated, although such rituals and beliefs could pass from one group to the other through trade and intermarriage. Most Native American tribes believed that the souls of the dead passed into a spirit world and became part of the spiritual forces that influenced every aspect of their lives. Many tribes believed in two souls, one that dies when the body died, and one that might wander on and eventually die. Burial customs varied widely from tribe to tribe (2).
Some Native Americans tended to focus on aiding the deceased in their afterlife. Other tribes left food and possessions of the dead person in or near the gravesite. Among many tribes, mourners, especially widows, cut their hair. Some Native Americans discarded personal ornaments or blacked their faces to honor the dead. Others gashed their arms and legs to express their grief. You can see how important and how much emotion goes into honoring their loved ones that have passed on.
The Native Americans want people to imagine if you and your families go out to visit the graves of your ancestors and find a bunch of people, who in the name of science, are digging up the bones of your loved ones. Also imagine going into museums and seeing a display that includes the skeleton of one of your relatives, displayed with your family heirlooms. They further argue that they know some of the archaeologists who work for the Federal government and who are supposed to protect their heritage, have extensive private collections of cultural objects found on the Federal lands. Also, there are lucrative markets that exist for antiquities where many rich private collectors will pay well for items that belong to their people. American Indians have no interest in selling any of these items because their heritage means more to them than money. Some Native Americans also argued this made the European people not worth studying (2).
Just like with the Native Americans, there are many differing opinions about this act and how it affects the museum and archaeology industries. This controversy has divided the discipline deeply, some think beyond recovery. Some anthropologists and archaeologist do not see how they can harm any person who has already been dead for thousands of years. Also some cannot see how any of their studies with the bones of these ancient people would harm any of the living people. Obviously, these people are only thinking scientifically and do not see the “big picture”.
Some archaeologists on the other side want us to imagine an America where the federal government takes an active role in promoting the spiritual values of certain cultural groups. For instance, if a group rarely documents its largely unknown religious practices and in face considers many rituals too secret for public knowledge shouldn’t we be able to study them? However, if outsiders violate this group’s beliefs; the government can threaten them with lawsuits, fines, or prison sentences. Also they believe that this scenario should not be imagined at all, because this America exists now. Some archaeologists say that we are seeing the triumph of political correctness over logic and reason (3).
One of the oldest human skeletons ever found was in North American. Since this Act was passed, the skeleton may be repatriated to several American Indian tribes for reburial. This skeleton revealed a long, narrow skull and face, a projecting nose, receding cheek bones, a high chin, and a square mandible. None of these features are of a typical modern American Indians. When this information was released a confession was released, stating that some early inhabitants of North America came from European stock. So, who do these skeletal remains belong to? According to the act, these remains should belong to the Native American tribe whose territory they were found in. However, science says that these cannot be the remains of Native Americans (1).
Once you have said it, you can never take it back. Once you have done it, you cannot change it. Archaeologists believe Americans, not Native Americans, but the slightly newer, more imported variety, have not quite learned that lesson yet. So they are just trying to right the wrongs of their ancestors. This law left the door wide open for Native American claims to any pre-Columbus-contact human remains, regardless of age or demonstrable relationship to modern American Indians. So according to anthropologists, does this give them a right to claim 70,000-year-old European Neanderthal burials as a direct ancestor simply because it is pre-Columbus? The Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act says yes (6).
Today, anthropologists and archaeologists have to be very careful in doing their jobs. Considerations have to be made now in the planning stages for any Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act issues that may arise, and steps taken to ensure that the tribes involved are treated fairly under the law. This law will alter not only how research is conducted, but also the ways in which anthropology has chosen to represent Native Americans cultures, history, and their prehistory in the United States. While several anthropologists and archaeologists oppose repatriation, the majorities of them have accepted it and have resolved to learn to work together with the Native Americans to protect archaeological sites that are accidentally disturbed and to help them retrieve the materials that the museums have had for so long. This law may bring opportunity for Indians and anthropologists to reconcile their differences. The body of knowledge drawn from both anthropologist and Indian people will play a central role in the repatriation process. The discipline of anthropology has evolved through a succession of intellectual changes and theoretical approaches. Repatriation studies and analysis can greatly expand anthropological knowledge in such areas as religion, law, social organization, and social and cultural change. The study of material culture will also be greatly enhanced. Anthropologists traditionally begin their research with an analysis of a specific social or cultural phenomenon. Material culture is generally secondary to anthropological research. The cumulative and comparative knowledge gained from a focus on the function of sacred objects within a cultural setting, and how these objects are held or owned by their possessors, can only expand anthropological knowledge.