The North American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGRA) is being amended. This is the act, set in 1990, that made it possible for Native American tribes to exert claims over human bones found that had “cultural” significance. I put “cultural” in quotes because it’s been a point of contention as to what exactly we mean by that.
Following years of pressure from Native American groups, the new rule
would give them the right to claim specimens without a cultural link if
they had been found close to tribes’ historic lands. “This is a major
departure, going way beyond the intent of the original law,” says John
O’Shea, a curator at the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology
in Ann Arbor, which has about 1,400 specimens considered culturally
unaffiliated. Overall, there are more than 124,000 culturally
unidentified ancient human remains in US institutions; although
estimates vary widely, at least 15% of these could be affected by the
Now they don’t even need a cultural link. If bones from someone living 2000 years ago are found near tribal historic lands, they can be claimed. That’s like me stopping an excavation of a Roman site on the grounds of it being close to my “tribe’s” historic lands.
I was against much of what is in this act all along, but now I’m just blown away. I understand that if there is a clear and obvious cultural link to a set of remains, then a tribe should get rights over it (it’s like if someone wanted to dig up George Washington’s remains, lot’s of Americans would be mad). If the remains are recent (last few hundred years), or are clearly from a still active culture, then leave them alone.
But, come on. At some point, science has to be done. My families roots are from Scotland. This is where some of the more famous “Bog Bodies” have been found. Should I file a complaint that someone dug up my ancestor and that it violates my cultural tradition?
In my opinion, anything beyond 200 years should be fair game, I don’t care what your culture is. So, if you want to dig up George Washington, or Thomas Jefferson to see if you can get any DNA off of them, be my guest. Similarly, the only way to know about the prehistory of the people of North America is to do science on what we find. We can’t do that if the bones get reburied.
[By the way, the picture at the top of the page is NOT a Native American. It’s a bog body found “near” where my ancestral lands were.]