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Working Together

NAGPRA, the Conflict between Science and Religion, and the Political Consequences

G. A. Clark

I am a paleoanthropologist and Old World prehistorian interested in epistemology--how we know what we think we know about the remote human past. More precisely, I am interested in the logic of inference in what I call "deep time"--the Plio-Pleistocene archaeopaleontological records of Africa and western Eurasia. So I am a different "kind" of archaeologist from those who deal with NAGPRA issues on a daily basis and believe the kind of archaeology one practices has implications for the perception of NAGPRA's ability or inability to redress historical wrongs. In terms of my biases, I am a committed evolutionist and, like most evolutionists, a materialist to the very core of my being. In turn, these philosophical considerations affect how I view archaeology, and my construal of the place of archaeology within the broader context of Western science.

While I readily acknowledge its defects, I am a staunch and unapologetic admirer of Western science. Despite its unparalleled success in achieving the modern world, however, Western science is currently under assault by various pseudo- and anti-science constituencies which attack the materialism that is the central ontological bias of the scientific worldview. Usually considered a "science-like" endeavor, archaeology is caught up in this controversy. Laws like NAGPRA strike at the heart of a scientific archaeology because they elevate the cultural traditions and religious beliefs of Indians to the level of science as a paradigm for describing or explaining reality. Political considerations thus take precedence over disinterested evaluation of knowledge claims, with tragic and irreversible results [G. A. Clark, 1996, NAGPRA and the Demon-Haunted World. SAA Bulletin 14(5):3; 15(2):4].

Because of my preconceptions about the place of humans in the natural world, I subscribe to what might be called "the materialist view" on NAGPRA. I think archaeology is, or should be, a "science-like" endeavor--as opposed to a political enterprise, an industry, a platform for promoting a social agenda, or a public relations exercise. Archaeologists, whether or not they acknowledge it publicly, subscribe to the same kinds of materialist biases and assumptions about the nature of the world, and the place of humans in it, that underlie all of Western science. The problem is that they are forced to compromise their beliefs for the sake of political expediency.

A Few Definitions

Science can be defined as a collection of methods for evaluating the credibility of knowledge claims about the experiential world. Science does not pretend to certainty; it only seeks better and better approximations of it. Scientific conclusions are continuously subjected to critical scrutiny. Science is, therefore, self-correcting. No topic or question is "off-limits" to science. The only thing that is antithetical to the scientific worldview is dogma. Dogma is the stuff of religious belief. From the standpoint of science, the illusion of absolute, unchanging truth is the most pernicious of vanities.

There are, of course, many views of humans and of the place of humans in the natural world. I would argue, however, that there is only one scientific view--that of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory. As the most powerful explanatory framework that humans have ever devised to account for the origins and diversity of life on earth, evolution is central to Western science, and subscribes to the same materialist biases and assumptions that underlie all science.

Materialism is the idea that only matter exists, and that what we regard as "mind" or "spirit" consists exclusively of matter arranged in complex ways. More precisely, mind is a consequence of brain evolution and, since our brains have evolved over the 5 million years for which we can document the existence of the Hominidae, what constitutes "mind" also has evolved. From this perspective, humans are only animals (albeit highly intelligent, technologically sophisticated, socially complex ones). Religious views of humans and their place in nature, dependent as they are on concepts that have no reality outside the mind, are epiphenomena (and--for a materialist--absurd). In other words, one cannot simultaneously understand and accept evolution and sustain a belief in the nonmaterial. From the standpoint of science, religious beliefs are curious survivals of earlier cognitive evolution. What probably happened is that, as our cognitive capacities expanded slowly over the Pleistocene millennia, we came to imagine more and more complex realities, and populated them with the gods, demons, and spirits that are the stuff of conventional religious belief. The question science would put to religion is: Why do humans have religious beliefs at all, since there is absolutely no empirical support for them?

My view, then, is that (1) philosophical and methodological materialism underlie the scientific worldview, (2) the scientific worldview, with respect to humans, is grounded in Darwinian evolutionary theory, (3) archaeology is "science-like" in terms of the preconceptions that underlie its logic of inference and its knowledge claims, and (4) this worldview puts those archaeologists who worry about such things at odds with the anti-materialist belief systems of Indians (and those of Americans in general). NAGPRA is, therefore, only a very small part of a much larger controversy that extends to many aspects of modern American life. That controversy turns on the conflict between the worldviews of religion and science. The late Carl Sagan summarized the issues underlying this debate in The Demon-Haunted World--recommended reading for archaeologists of all persuasions, regardless of their views on NAGPRA (C. Sagan, 1996, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Ballantine Books, New York).

Science and NAGPRA

NAGPRA is basically about the repatriation to Native American claimants of human remains and funerary objects from museum or federal agency collections, and/or those recovered from Indian lands. These remains, and their counterparts elsewhere, are perceived by Western science to pertain to a generalized human past, as part of a universal heritage not circumscribed by ethnic or cultural boundaries. However, legislation enacted in recent years has given the cultural traditions and religious beliefs of Indians greater weight under the law than the universalist perspective that underlies scientific inquiry. Motivated by political expediency, and the kind of anti-science sentiment to which I have just alluded, NAGPRA requires the consultation in archaeological excavation of very broadly defined Native American constituencies, and mandates the repatriation and reburial (if so desired by native claimants), of human remains and funerary objects, sometimes including those not affiliated with any known or recognized Native American group.

NAGPRA creates both short-term opportunities and long-term problems for archaeologists, bioarchaeologists, and physical anthropologists concerned with the study of human skeletal remains. It creates opportunities because the NAGPRA-mandated inventories (1) employ many archaeologists and physical anthropologists (albeit temporarily); (2) it forces the profession to "clean up its act" in regard to curation and record keeping, and (3) applies minimum descriptive standards to the human skeletal collections (J. Rose, T. Green, and V. Green, 1996, NAGPRA is Forever: Osteology and the Repatriation of Skeletons. Annual Review of Anthropology 25:81-103). It creates problems because NAGPRA places ethnicity and religious belief on an equal footing with science, and thus provides a mandate for claims of affiliation by virtually any interested party. As is true of any ethnic or racial category, however, "Native Americanness" has only a political definition. Anthropologists acknowledge the statistical, clinal character of race and ethnicity; the government does not. Federal agencies and state legislatures, which have often gone far beyond NAGPRA in their zeal to be politically correct, don't want to be bothered with such subtleties (after all, anthropologists are an even weaker political constituency than Indians), with the result that claims for the repatriation of human remains and "objects of cultural patrimony" can be extended to include just about anything identified as "affiliated" by a claimant. The process thus becomes entirely political, with Western science, represented by archaeology, the inevitable loser.

Archaeology is admittedly a "small science," with a weakly developed conception that lacks the powerful, law-like generalizations that underlie the spectacular, recent progress of mainstream, experimental, "big science" disciplines like physics. Despite its many shortcomings, however, archaeology in the United States has always been a "science-like" endeavor in the sense that it subscribes to the same collection of materialist biases and assumptions that underlie all of Western science. Moreover, its achievements have been substantial. It is a fact that most of the precontact aboriginal cultures of the New World would have vanished without a trace were it not for archaeology (and the occasional presence of a Western observer to record information about them). We all lose if, for reasons of political expediency, Indians rebury their past. One of the many ironies in the situation is that many Native American groups who favor the preservation and study of archaeological and skeletal collections are being co-opted by the actions of small, but vocal, activist minorities in cahoots with ignorant legislators willing to sell the profession down the pike for the sake of short-term political gains.

The problems in operationalizing NAGPRA are thrown into sharp relief by the ridiculous situation surrounding Kennewick man. NAGPRA is predicated on the assumption that archaeologists can, in fact, identify prehistoric antecedents to extant identity-conscious social groups. However, I don't believe they can do that reliably, consistently, or, usually, at all. Race and ethnicity are fleeting, transient things--written on the wind. They do not partake of the timeless "essences" the public (in its ignorance of biology), would impart to them [G. A. Clark, 1997, Race from the Perspective of Western Science. Anthropology Newsletter 38(7):54; and 1997, Pernicious Vanities. Anthropology Newsletter 38(7):54, 56]. There is no scientific basis for the existence of present-day ethnic groups as recently as 400 or 500 years ago, much less in more remote time ranges. The notion of fixed, enduring, bounded ethnicity is positively quaint from the perspective of modern population biology. Nevertheless, it is endorsed and reified by the simple-minded, essentialist, typological thinking institutionalized in public policy by our own government. For example, take a look at the absurd racial and ethnic categories concocted by the U.S. census and replicated on application forms throughout the land. The point is simply that popular conceptions of race and ethnicity, as discrete or bounded entities, have no basis in modern science. Consequently, efforts by archaeologists to trace them into the past are likely doomed to failure.

Wreaking Vengeance on History?

In closing, I question the advisability of wreaking vengeance on history--for that is exactly what NAGPRA tries to do. Not a good idea. No one disputes that Indians have suffered mightily at the hands of the European colonists who have come to dominate U.S. society. No one is claiming that scientists have always acted responsibly with respect to human skeletal material under their curation. No one is suggesting that if we can just "decode" nature correctly, moral truth will be revealed. I am saying, however, that the loss of prehistoric skeletal material to science is incalculable, and that that consideration takes precedence, or should take precedence, over the religious concerns of Native Americans. The worldviews of science and religion are fundamentally incommensurate and cannot be reconciled. Science is not "about" religion, however. It is not about moral truth, although it can sometimes help us in our struggle to reach appropriate moral decisions. Clearly, humans did not evolve in this hemisphere. Indians haven't always been here, regardless of what their origin myths might say. I am curious as to how they came to be here, and what happened to them subsequent to their arrival. The best way to answer these questions is through the analysis of prehistoric human skeletal material. The idea that we should spend a bundle now to study it "completely," before we give it back, is ridiculous. This presupposes that science will not advance, and that new avenues of inquiry will not be opened to us later. It also assumes that data exist independent of the conceptual frameworks that define and contextualize them, which, from an epistemological standpoint, is terminally naïve. A direct consequence of the national paroxysm of guilt surrounding the quincentenary, NAGPRA is bad law. It is in the interests of Indians and anglos alike that it be repealed.

NAGPRA clearly has implications for the future of archaeology as a "science-like" endeavor. It also speaks volumes about the status of Western science in general, and the role that reasoned inquiry plays in U.S. society. The worldview of Western science is under serious and sustained assault, and there is a danger that "science-like" views of reality will perish in the face of a multipronged attack in which mysticism, religious fundamentalism, creationism, and the believers in the paranormal combine with postmodernist academics to attack the critical realism and mitigated objectivity which are the central epistemological biases of the scientific worldview. The political climate also has become increasingly problematic in recent years as politicians, who generally misunderstand what science "is" or "does," have pandered to the often-vocal concerns of the various anti-science constituencies. The result is a loss of public confidence in the ability of science to resolve significant problems, an increase in the popularity of the various pseudo- or anti-scientific worldviews, and a decline in the perceived credibility of rational thought as a method of inquiry about the nature of the world and the place of humans in it. These threats to rational behavior even have the potential to undermine the democratic process itself, since it depends upon the capacity of an educated citizenry to make reasonable decisions in the face of uncertainty.

G. A. Clark is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Native Americans, Western Science, and NAGPRA

Joe Watkins


Geoffrey Clark presents a well-reasoned presentation of the view of a "paleoanthropologist" (a snazzier term than "archaeologist") regarding the place of science in Western culture and the way that the scientific study of humanity has and will "suffer" under NAGPRA. In fact, he has received a wide audience for his views: his paper in this exchange has been presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association (in the public policy forum, "NAGPRA Revisited: Where Do We Go From Here?") and the SAA Annual Meeting (in the symposium, "The Impacts of Repatriation: International Perspectives"), as well as published in the April 1998 Anthropology Newsletter (pp. 24-25).

Clark's perception of the conflict between science and the Native American is well presented. But the keyword here is "perception." As with most scientific writings aimed at the rather specialized population of scientists studying Native American human remains, one of the paper's fundamental flaws is its failure to deal with the differing perceptions of the scientific and Native American communities. While it is extremely difficult to offer a single "Native American perspective" on anything, I will proceed to offer a generalization as if it were possible to do so.

Passion versus Dispassion

Logically, Clark's arguments make sense: NAGPRA should not hinder science's quest for answers which explain the natural world and humanity's place within it. But, unfortunately (or perhaps, happily?), we humans are not logical creatures. We are emotional beings, given to outbreaks of whimsy and passion. Maybe American Indians and scientists are doomed to operate on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum--passion versus dispassion. Where scientists feel drawn to cold facts, American Indians feel drawn to those things outside of the demonstrable world (Clark's "epiphenomena"). Perhaps scientists should stop being so dispassionate, stop trying to step outside humanity, and join the rest of the world. I don't trust a person who has no passion!

Clark's comment that ". . . one cannot simultaneously understand and accept evolution and sustain a belief in the nonmaterial" reminds me of a joke: "What do you get if you cross a scientist with the Ku Klux Klan? Someone who burns question marks on the lawn." I believe science and religion are remarkably intertwined, a double helix spiraling across time and space. Neither should exist without the other, for each one gives us different information and different perceptions on the human condition. I argue, unlike my materialist colleague, that it is the very fact that we are aware of such things (rather than blindly accepting of them) that places us at the top of the intellectual pyramid. The very fact that we recognize the difference between life and death, that we cannot quantify "life" as it exits the corporeal materialist mass but only the resultant "death," sets us apart from those lesser animals that recognize only an inanimate form in their midst, perhaps only as a source of food.

Perhaps some American Indians place an apparent undue emphasis on human remains--the last material reminder of a person's life--but the uncertainty with which we all face the afterworld imbues in us an obligation to see that those remains are protected from unnecessary and unwanted disturbance. If the disturbance and study of human remains is deemed unnecessary by American Indians, then the entire process is seen as an affront to American Indian cultural beliefs. Anthropologists should be among the first to realize that messing around with a culture's belief system is asking for trouble. But if a disturbance is seen as accidental or unavoidable, then the chance of compromise is greater. The second word, "unwanted," is perhaps more loaded than "unnecessary," because it implies a lack of power, a helplessness of American Indians, to control--or at least participate--in determining their own destiny. Many projects dealing with human remains are unwanted by American Indians. This is plain truth. But there are some American Indian groups who can be persuaded to allow studies when they see the utility for them. The utility must be real to them, not just to the researcher.

NAGPRA: Equal Protection

Perhaps certain portions of NAGPRA are aimed at "redressing historic wrongs," as Clark comments, but NAGPRA itself is, more importantly, a piece of human rights legislation designed to provide Native American human remains equal protection under the law. Timothy McKeown, program leader for the National Park Service, says that NAGPRA ". . . formally reaffirms the rights of lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations to have custody of Native American human remains, funerary objects, and objects of cultural patrimony" (C. T. McKeown, 1995, Overview of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990: Compliance Workshop Proceedings. Haskell Indian Nations University, pp. 15). J. Trope and W. Echo-Hawk [1992, The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act: Background and Legislative History. Arizona State Law Journal 24(1): 35-78, pp. 47-52] present five sources of existent law (other than NAGPRA) that ". . . can provide the underpinning for tribal grave protection efforts and repatriation claims" (1992: 47). R. Tsosie (1997, Indigenous Rights and Archaeology. In Native Americans and Archaeologists: Stepping Stones to Common Ground. Edited by N. Swidler, K. Dongoske, R. Anyon, and A. Downer, pp. 64-76, pp. 71. AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek) notes that NAGPRA does not go far enough toward protecting all Native American remains, since it covers only those items found on federal or tribal property or which reside in federally funded institutions. If NAGPRA is human rights legislation, as these authors assert, it does not matter whether there is a Native American political agenda at work here. Anthropologists must stop taking NAGPRA personally! The law was not created to make their lives miserable, but to take another's belief system into consideration and to provide equal treatment for all human remains. Anthropologists also have forgotten that, although NAGPRA is a national law, it is not applied nationally. Each American Indian tribe or nation can choose to apply the law as it sees fit. Consultation is a face-to-face and person-to-person business.

Contrary to what Clark feels, I do not think that, under NAGPRA, "[p]olitical considerations thus take precedence over disinterested evaluation of knowledge claims." While Clark thinks archaeology should be ". . . a `science-like' endeavor--as opposed to a political enterprise, an industry, a platform for promoting a social agenda or a public relations exercise", I find it difficult to believe that science has ever presented a "disinterested evaluation of knowledge claims . . .," or that science is not ". . . a platform for promoting a social agenda or a public relations exercise." Science is never above nor outside of the society or political system in which it exists. Society not only influences science, it actively molds it--from the topics scientists study and the levels of freedom they have to study touchy topics, to the ways in which the society punishes those who do not work within its system. As an example of perhaps science at its worst, Nazis did "science." It is not the results of Nazi science which the world finds unacceptable but rather the political enterprise behind it, the "industry" it created, its platform for promoting a social agenda, and its exercise in public relations. Science in the modern world also has political and social agendas that often go unrecognized.

Clark also congratulates archaeology for its achievements by stating: "It is a fact that most of the precontact aboriginal cultures of the New World would have vanished without a trace were it not for archaeology (and the occasional presence of a western observer to record information about them)." Like the philosophical tree in the forest, if "a precontact aboriginal culture of the New World vanishes without a trace," and there is no "Western observer there to record information about them," do they make a sound? Moreover, I suppose we "precontact aboriginal cultures in the New World" should be happy that we weren't in the presence of Western observers like those who helped record information about the Tasmanians!

An Anthropology of All Americans

I agree with Clark, however, when he states "NAGPRA creates both short-term opportunities and long-term problems for archaeologists, bioarchaeologists and/or physical anthropologists who study human skeletal remains." It is indeed a fact that some anthropologists will lose their primary research focus, but there are too many options available to begin making arrangements for the discipline's funeral. We may be too shortsighted to comprehend the opportunities we may have been given, but we can make American anthropology an anthropology of all Americans, not just white Americans. By working with American Indians instead of in spite of them, we might actually develop programs that have meaning outside of the ivory tower of academe, programs that impact the human condition and provide useable information beyond The Learning Channel or PBS, programs that will provide answers to everyone about what happens when humans enter an unknown world without an idea of food or raw material sources, or even whether the sun will rise the next morning. We must earn the right to wear the mantle bestowed on us as chroniclers of the vast store of knowledge about what it is to be human.

We, as anthropologists, are standing on the edge of a forest with an almost impenetrable growth in front of us. We can try to bulldoze our way through it, but we will destroy all that might be ahead of us; we can try to circumvent the forest, and run the risk of losing our collective lives in the resultant uncharted wilderness; or we can look for the path between the trees, moving carefully, taking the journey one step (and roadblock) at a time. An army does not pass through a forest as a single body, but rather as an allied group of individuals. We must be an army on a common campaign--an army of individuals working to reach a common goal.

Joe Watkins is with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Oklahoma.

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