Friday, November 25, 2005


I’ve wanted to do something about the Kennewick Man controversy for quite a while now, but haven’t really had the motivation. When I started writing about this and it got out of hand pretty quickly, so this post will deal with NAGPRA and some of the issues that have arisen out of the Kennewick case, I'll follow up with another post dealing exclusively with Kennewick shortly.

What really got me going on the subject was a post a couple of weeks ago by PZ Myers at Pharyngula titled “The proper reverence due those who have gone before” (link) The post was mostly about why science is better than religion, but in a sideways sort of way got me going about Kennewick Man.

Look at the title of the piece: “The proper reverence due those who have gone before.” I think it’s fair to say that Myers is arguing for knowing the past through investigation rather than trusting in revealed truths, but on a functional level he’s saying that the proper means of showing respect to the dead is to dig up their remains, grind portions up for dating and (depending on age) DNA analysis, conduct detailed studies of morphology, taphonomy and so on, then toss them into a climate controlled drawer for storage.

What does Myers have to say specifically about Kennewick Man? “Nature reports that after 9 years of court battles, the 9,000 year old bones are finally finding their way to where they belong: the lab.” I would naturally like to ask Myers if his parents are dead, and if so, to which lab he sent their remains.

I’m sure most people reading this would argue that there’s a pretty substantial difference between parents and 9,000-year-old remains, and that’s where the fun starts, with these tiny cultural differences. Let's explore some of these fun issues together.

What is NAGPRA?

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is a law enacted in 1990 which provides a process whereby Federal agencies and museums receiving federal funds are required to repatriate human remains, and funerary or sacred objects, to lineal descendants or culturally affiliated tribes. NAGPRA also provides protection for remains and artifacts discovered on Federal or tribal lands.

It is important to note that NAGPRA does not impact private institutions that do not receive federal money, or remains and artifacts discovered on state or privately owned land.

Why do we need NAGPRA?

Until fairly recently it was a standard practice for any Indian remains that were discovered to be unearthed and sent to museums or universities for study. Scientists and academics have a persistent curiosity concerning Indians, it has been a consistent belief that Indians are sufficiently different to warrant being classified as objects for study rather than people. The end product is tens of thousands of Indian remains collecting dust in the closets, cabinets, and drawers of various museums and universities around the country, most of which were simply accumulated willy-nilly and stored with little or no effort made to properly catalog, classify or study them.

There are currently over 100,000 Indian remains in the possession of affected institutions that cannot be culturally associated with any tribe. Essentially, while indulging in the wholesale collection of Indian remains and justifying this practice in the name of science, scientists now cannot tell us anything meaningful about these remains because no actual study was ever conducted.

Why this is important?

Regardless of our varying thoughts concerning what happens to us after we die, every society has a means of determining what happens to our remains after death. There seem to be two basic means of approaching the issue of disposition of remains; that remains are a property which may be disposed of according to the whims of the inheritors, or that it is a duty of those inheritors to provide a disposition in accordance with the wishes of the deceased (customary funerary practices).

Native traditions tend to follow the latter pattern. It helps to know that in native traditions (at least all of which I’m aware, there may be exceptions), the flesh and the spirit are not held to be divisible, as Western traditions have come to believe. When we’re looking down at Ed’s body, it’s not viewed as the mortal remains that Ed has left behind. It’s still Ed. He’s not exactly here in the same sense he was when alive, but how we handle him still affects him in a literal way, so we treat him well and respect his personal autonomy, just as we did when he was alive.

Remains are not objects, they are people. Ethical study of people requires consent; ethical study of the dead requires the consent those who are designated to speak for them, this designation is the purpose of customs and laws addressing custody of remains, including NAGPRA. This is the position from which tribes approach this problem.

Religion vs. Science is a straw man.

In his post concerning the Kennewick decision Myers writes, “While I think it's not only fair but required that Native Americans be treated with respect, I have no such compunctions about Native American superstitions….” Without putting words into someone else’s mouth, let me rephrase that to reflect the way I read it: “While I think it’s not only fair but required that Native Americans be treated with respect, I believe that treatment ends when they make use of their First Amendment rights.”

On Panda’s Thumb Timothy Sandefur writes on the controversy: “When we talk about the legal problems of creationism, we tend to focus on the fundamentalist Christian churches, but there are other varieties of creationism out there. There are even creationists among Indian tribes, and they are also causing problems for scientists.” See the clever linking of tribes with Christian Fundamentalists? Long time allies, you know. Feel free to discuss in comments the numerous occasions where tribes have attempted to intrude tribal religious practices onto the general public. Bonus points for anyone who can distinguish between a small group of tribes acting in concert to exercise determination over one set of remains, from a group/groups attempting to impose a national religious agenda. Wanker.

What both have done is shift the exercise away from the subject of choice and into the realm of how people exercise choice. This “argument” ventures into the view that the tribes should be denied any legal right to exercise determination in regards to disputed remains because the choices they would make are bad, in the writers’ opinion. In this regard many in the scientific community have a great deal more in common with Christian fundamentalists than Indians do, in that they are attempting to argue against a legal right because those affected might make decisions that won’t benefit them (see: abortion).

I see a problem with arguing that people should be denied rights under law because (among other reasons) they choose to rely on religious or spiritual values in the exercise of those rights, but your mileage may vary.

Next time, we'll be discussing why the Kennewick Case turned into horseshit.