As an undergrad about to graduate, the future can be uncertain. When I first declared my double major in Anthropology and Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, I knew I wanted to work with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) but I wasn’t quite sure how. Being an indigenous student, I had been frustrated that the NAGPRA inventory process can take so long, I wanted to see change and I was convinced that I would be one of the people to bring change to the legislation in the future. Until this semester everything I had learned about NAGPRA had been theoretical, I knew how the process worked but I had never seen anything outside of a classroom. I began interning at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History as a way to put my last 4 years to the test. I wanted to see if this was really what I wanted to do with my life. In a way, I was on a quest to right the wrongs of the past, to be the ideal Anthro/NAS student. While I still wish to continue work with NAGPRA I have learned that issues such as repatriation and NAGPRA inventory are not as clear cut as one would assume, and that a “great quest” is not the way in which to go about working towards change.
I have been humbled by my experience here at the Sam Noble. The first time I handled human remains, I had to take a moment to myself afterwards to fully comprehend the amount of responsibility I had to not only the tribe, but to the person this once was as well. I had an idea of what to expect from my classes, but lectures and study sessions cannot compare to the real thing. After being a part of the process, I now understand just why doing NAGPRA inventory can take so long. There is a diligence that must be adhered to. In order to ensure that the Sam Noble Museum is up to NAGPRA standards and is fostering the best environment possible for indigenous relations, each step of the process must be meticulous. In order to move forward in an ethically responsible way tribes must be consulted on how they wish for their ancestors remains to be handled, and the Sam Noble Museum must listen to these requests. Is it not the spirit of NAGPRA to form relationships based on mutual respect and trust?
NAGPRA was, and remains a victory for native peoples, but NAGPRA’s journey cannot be over just yet. There are still many things to be examined and re-worked. One issue in particular that has stuck out to me is that of “Culturally Unidentifiable” remains. In the article NAGPRA and the Problem of “Culturally Unidentifiable” Remains: The Argument for Human Rights Framework by Rebecca Tsosie, she discusses the historical and legal contexts surrounding “Culturally Unidentifiable” indigenous remains. She examines the “competing interests” of tribes and scientists when ancient remains are under debate. Much of the argument over “Culturally Unidentifiable” remains relies on the “existence of an identifiable earlier group”. The simple problem with identification through anyone other that the actual tribe, is that tribes have not always identified by the standards that the US government has set forth in the past 200-300 years. To many tribes these remains are not “Culturally Unidentifiable”, these remains are their ancestors. The use of a colonized system to determine who may belong to what people, and not allow the people to determine for themselves who is a member is continued colonization that was intended to be address with NAGPRA.
NAGPRA has done considerable good work and has served as a stepping stone in the right direction for building ethical relationships with tribal peoples, but like all legislation it is not without flaws and should be considered for amendments. We have seen many laws amended and given additions to make the understanding and jurisdiction more clear, and while NAGPRA has undergone amendments and changes, it is still not as all encompassing as one would hope. We are fast approaching the 30 year anniversary of NAGPRA, and I feel it is time to re-examine NAGPRA’s reaches and consider ways in which to make certain details of the legislation involving “Culturally Unidentifiable” remains more clear in order to ensure the best protections and protocols are in place.
Author: Ash Boydston