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  • Bones of Contention: The Repatriation of Native American Human RemainsAuthor(s): Andrew GullifordSource: The Public Historian, Vol. 18, No. 4, Representing Native American History (Autumn,1996), pp. 119-143Published by: University of California PressStable URL: 28/02/2010 05:28

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  • Bones of Contention:

    The Repatriation of Native

    American Human Remains


    The Surgeon General is anxious that our collection of Indian crania, already quite large, should be made as complete as possible.

    -Madison Mills Surgeon, United States Army

    Januaxy 13, 1868

    ANDREW GULLIFORD is an associate professor of history and director of the Public History and Historic Preservation graduate program at Middle Tennessee State University. He has worked with interdisciplinary teams to prepare nominations of Indian trails for the National Register of Historic Places, and he regularly consults on repatriation and tribal museum issues. His photographs of Native American sites have been published on the cover of the Advisory Council's Report to the President and Congress of the United States and The Secretary of the Intertor's Report to Congress: Federal Archaeological Programs and Activi- ties. His article "Native Americans and Museums: Curation and Repatriation of Sacred and Tribal Objects" appeared in The Public Histortan 14, no. 3 (Summer 1992). This article could not have been researched and written without the generous assistance of the James Marston Fitch Foundation of New York City and the author's receipt of a grant to study tribal historic preservation. The author would also like to thank Professors Fred Rolater and Lorne McWatters for their assistance and willingness to read drafts of this essay, as well as guest editors Ann Marie Plane and Clara Sue Kidwell. Lindsey Reed is to be commended for her patience. Thanks also go to the anonymous reviewers who made valuable editorial suggestions. The author would also like to thank the numerous Native Americans, Native Alaskans, and Native Hawaiians who have shared their anguish and their stories with him. Where possible individual contributions are cited in the notes.


    The Public Historiar1, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Fall 1996) i) 1996 by the Regents of the University of California and

    the National Council on Public History


    White bones are rebuned, tribal bones are studied in racist institutions. . . . The tribal dead become the academic chattel, the aboriginal bone

    slaves to advance archaeological technicism and the political power of institutional science.

    Gerald Vizenor Crossbloocls, 1990

    OF ALL THE CULTURAL RESOURCE issues affecting Indian tribes today, none is more complicated than the return and reburial of human remains. Some tribes seek to rebuF all their ancestors on tribal lands. Other Native Americans are not interested in having bones in museums reburied, but they are keenly interested in claiming unidentified remains found on public land for various reasons, including the assertion of expanded territorial boundaries, the settlement of land claims suits, and as a means to tribal re- recognition. This essay explores the history of the collection of Native American skeletons and explains the unintended effects of recent legislation which was passed to help return Indian remains to tribal hands. For public historians working with tribal peoples, these are vital issues which must be understood both in a historical context and in terms of how Indians today perceive their relationship to contemporag archaeologists, anthropologists, historical researchers, and museum curators.

    During the nineteenth century, no Indian society was left unmolested in the race systematically to collect and classify human remains from all American aboriginal cultures. The same nineteenth-century mindset that saw tribal peoples as "savages" saw their human remains as appropriate for scientific inquiC rather than continuous respect. As Indians were being killed on battlefields and forced onto reservations, native bones were often collected, examined, and then placed in long-term permanent storage in hundreds of private collections or in the U.S. Army Medical College.

    In 1988, the American Association of Museums reported to the Senate Select Committee of Indian Affairs that 163 museums held 43,306 Native American skeletal remains.l The Smithsonian Institution alone had 18,600 American Indian and Alaskan native remains and thousands of burial artifacts. Indian activist Susan Shown Harjo explained that Indians are "further dehumanized by being effiibited alongside mastodons and dino- saurs and other extinct creatures."2 For most of America's native peoples, no other issue has touched a more sensitive chord than these disrespectful nineteenth-century collecting practices. For that reason, the repatriation of

    1. Letter from Edward H. Able, Jr., Executive Director of the American Association of Museums, to The Honorable Daniel K. Inouye, Select Committee on Indian Affairs, 12 September 1988 with attachments.

    2. Susan Shown Harjo, cited in Gerald Vizenor, "Bone Courts: The Natural Rights of Tribal Bones," Crossbloods (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), 62. For additional Harjo quotes see Karen Swisher, "Skeletons in the Closet," The Washing,ton Post, 3 October 1989.


    human remains to their tribes of origin for reburial is one of the most important cultural resource issues today.

    Many Indians seek to rescue their human remains from what they believe to have been dubious and prolonged scientific research. As Curtis M. Hinsley notes, "the painful and immensely complex matter of repatriation of bones and burial goods has become an issue extending beyond proprietor- ship per se; indeed, the debate is ultimately not over control of bones at all, but over control of narrative: the stories of peoples who went before and how those peoples (and their descendants) are to be currently represented and treated." Hinsley writes, "The heart of the matter, as always, lies in the negotiation between power and respect."3 How to research and handle these delicate human remains issues is a fundamental challenge for public histo- rians but one that will offer enormous satisfaction both for historians and tribal leaders as old injustices are finally corrected.

    As early as 1972, anthropologists and Indian people had cooperated in the reburial of Narrangansett remains.4 In the late 1980s, major protests by Native Americans and the national exposure of commercial grave-robbing incidents like the devastation of Slack Farm in Kentucly brought repatria- tion to the forefront of public discourse. Sympathy and understanding for Native-American issues prompted Congress in 1989 to pass the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) Act to create an Indian museum in the last space available on the mall in Washington, D.C. The NMAI Act helped solidify a constituency which pushed for a broad national law to redress a centuw of Indian graverobbing.

    After years of intense wrangling and dissension among college profes- sors, archaeologists, museum directors, and native tribes, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990. NAGPRA required all museums and facilities receiving federal funds to inventory human remains and associated burial goods in their collections and to notify modern tribal descendants by November 1995.5 The burden of notification was placed upon the museums, and native peoples were allowed to choose which materials, if any, they wished to consider for repatriation. The bill represented a major victory for Indian peoples, a significant piece of human rights legislation that permits the living to reassert control over their own dead.

    3. Curtis M. Hinsley, The Smithsonian and the American Indian: Making a Moral Anthropolog1y in Vistonan Amencsl (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994), 12.

    4. See William Simmons, The Narragansett (New York: Chelsea House, 1989). 5. Because of the recent deadline of November 1995, the eff'ects of NAGPRA are still

    uncertain, although the sheer volume of paperwork has created conf'usion f'or many tribes. In a telephone interview on 10 November 1995 Gordon Pullar explained that some Alaskan villages have been inundated with over 200 letters f'rom museums attempting to comply with NAGPRA provisions. Frequently native villages or tribes do not have an

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