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Working Together

Repatriation's Silver Lining

Thomas W. Killion and Paula Molloy

Associate Editor's note: This paper was presented at the 63rd Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in March 1998, Seattle.

Repatriation legislation has fundamentally altered the treatment of Native American remains and objects held by museums and other repositories in the United States. Passed almost 10 years ago, the repatriation mandate is embodied in two laws: the National Museum of the American Indian Act, which applies to the Smithsonian Institution museums [including our museum, the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH)], and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) which applies to other museums and federal agencies. The laws require organizations funded by the federal government to disclose the nature and extent of their Native American collections and enter into consultation with affiliated tribes over the final disposition of remains and culturally sensitive items identified in the laws. Ironically, the quest for the origins of Native Americans which first brought institutions such as the Smithsonian into being, has now come full circle, and Indian participation in the study of Native American origins and history is rapidly expanding (Swidler et al. 1997; Echo-Hawk 1997; Minthorn 1997; Watkins et al. 1995). This trend is in no small part an outcome of the repatriation mandate.

The passage and initial implementation of Native American repatriation legislation was met with dire predictions for the fate of science and freedom of inquiry (e.g. Meighan 1996; Morell 1995, cf. Jones and Harris 1997). Pitched battles erupted between Indians and museum anthropologists over the identity of remains and their relationship to contemporary tribes (Billeck and Urcid 1995; Bray and Killion 1994; Steinacher et al. 19911mine the repatriation status of remains and objects have landed native and scientific disputants in court (Na Iwi O Na Kupuna O Mokapu v. Dalton 1995; NPS 1997). Here we focus on the notion that repatriation represents a loss from the scientific perspective. We contend that while initially daunting to the scientific status quo, repatriation has generally accelerated the pace and scope of research on the origins and history of the aboriginal peoples of North America. We question the a priori assumption of "loss," and instead evaluate the changes that have taken place and their outcomes on the basis of the evidence now available.

Viewed from the outside, repatriation has stirred up controversy, and polarized museums and Native Americans. In spite of this perception, however, potential adversaries engage one another, working ground rules are established, information is shared, decisions are made, and the law is carried out. At the NMNH, the repatriation mandate has yielded unprecedented advances in access to information, and to the collections themselves, by Native peoples and other groups. As a direct result of the repatriation process, Native American participation in the life of the museum has reached an all time high.

Repatriation is sometimes a painful and culturally challenging event. Our experiences include the Cheyenne return, which graphically resurrected a host of tragedies, such as the massacre at Sand Creek and the killings following the Ft. Robinson outbreak (Killion et al. 1992). Other historic period repatriation cases have involved the Apache massacres in Arizona (Speaker et al. 1994), an ambush of friendly Pawnee Scouts in Nebraska (Baugh and Makseyn-Kelley 1992; Riding In 1992), the Nez Perce war (Molloy 1996), and the sorrowful events at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1898 (Smythe 1998). These events require revisitation and evaluation of some of the darkest moments in American history. Our review of the fate of these individuals and the conditions under which their remains were acquired, however, illuminates old history in a new and often profound way. We hope that this effort will challenge our understanding of the past in much the same way that the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., bears witness to the genocide of WWII--by reviewing history in a manner that goes beyond analysis to commemorate the victims and survivors.

Repatriation documentation revisits a pivotal era in Native American history. With a few notable exceptions (Thornton 1990; Svaldi 1989), historical details of encounter, depopulation, and survival among Native American groups are ignored in surveys of Native American demographic change, and are often overlooked as a focus of anthropological research. However, this period is central to both Native and Euro-American history, and is a fertile subject for anthropological inquiry and critical analysis. Furthermore, the events of the Colonial Period were ultimately the impetus for the repatriation movement, and influence its present course.

While repatriation illuminates a critical period in recent history, many anthropologists continue to focus on what they perceive to be its deleterious effects on the conduct of science in general, and the loss of anthropological collections specifically. For brevity, we will address the inventory, documentation, and repatriation of human remains and funerary objects only. There simply are no comprehensive statistics available regarding quantities of human remains returned nationwide. The NAGPRA process is overseen by the Archeology and Ethnography Program of the National Park Service (NPS) in Washington D.C., which monitors the information provided to the tribes by museums, federal agencies, and other organizations. NAGPRA inventories completed to date account for about 200,000 sets of remains, of which almost 10,000 are "culturally affiliated" and presumably available for return if the tribes so desire. There is no mechanism for documenting the actual return of those 10,000 identified remains reported. It also is not clear how many of the reported remains have actually been culturally identified. Some institutions, for example, have reported large collections from the southwest as culturally "Puebloan." In these cases, any or all culturally affiliated tribes may make a claim (McKeown 1998). However, without additional research and consultation with the tribes involved, it is difficult to determine which federally recognized tribe or tribes in the region would receive these remains. In some areas of the country, tribal alliances have formed to take responsibility for the larger, less specific cultural groupings.

Some of the largest natural history and anthropology museums in the country, with collections of human remains in the 5,000 to 15,000 individual range, were given extensions and will not report for another year or more. It is impossible to predict how many culturally affiliated remains will be identified as part of this process or, once identified, how many will be returned. Thus far, the only summary statement possible is that approximately 5 percent of the human remains held by museums outside of the Smithsonian are presently eligible for return. Since there is presently a backlog of intent to repatriate notices awaiting publication, the number is expected to grow.

Because of funding provided by the National Museum of the American Indian Act, repatriation has proceeded much further at the NMNH. Prior to the passage of this legislation, the museum held 18,400 cataloged sets of remains from U.S. proveniences in North America and Hawaii. Since 1992, we have returned more than 3,000 of these to almost 40 individual federally-recognized tribes in Alaska, Hawaii, the Pacific Northwest, and the Great Plains. Another 1,500 individuals are scheduled for return to Plains tribes in 1999.

Documentating the more than 4,000 individuals involved has yielded a great deal of contextual information on the remains that otherwise might never have been widely available. Reports and databases generated by this process reveal information on the cultural origins, circumstances of acquisition, and physical condition of the skeletal remains themselves. Many of these remains have been previously studied, but like most other museums, no permanent, systematic record of this research had been created. Repatriation has provided the first mechanism for pulling together enough information on the remains to answer one of the most common questions asked by tribal representatives and the general public alike--"what have you actually learned over the last 150 years?"

Repatriation has generated the first systematic catalog of remains and objects in the museum ever provided to the tribes. This work has also served to correct errors in the museum's catalog. For example, about 10 percent of the catalog information on cultural affiliation has been found to be in error for the cases completed to date, including information on age, sex, skeletal elements present, and cause of death. In addition to being the Smithsonian's first comprehensive tribal catalog of remains and objects, the documentation record of our repatriation program also chronicles the manner in which the museum complied with the repatriation mandate.

Besides the direct impact on museum collections, we also must consider repatriation's effect on physical anthropology as a discipline. On the eve of the passage of federal repatriation legislation, scientists attempted to evaluate the importance of skeletal studies and how they might be impacted by repatriation. In 1989, Ubelaker and Grant (1989: 252) reviewed the previous two years of submissions to the American Journal of Physical Anthropology (AJPA), and found that 20 percent of manuscripts focused on skeletal anatomy or paleopathology. However, it is not clear if they included papers based on collections not subject to NAGPRA, such as collections from Europe, Africa, Asia, and South and Central America.

To better assess NAGPRA's impacts on research, we reviewed all papers published in AJPA between 1985 and 1996 inclusive, that deal with human remains from the United States. While we expected to see a change in the number of papers focusing on Native American remains in the years following the passage of NAGPRA, this was not the case. From 1985 through 1989, papers dealing with Native American remains represented 6 percent of the total papers published. From 1990 through 1996, such papers amounted to 7 percent.

Based on this, we offer two observations: (1) using AJPA as a measure, there is as yet no major effect on published research focusing on Native American remains and (2) physical anthropological studies of Native American remains make up a very small part of physical anthropological research as a whole. Together, these observations suggest not only that repatriation has not yet produced the dire consequences for research that were predicted before the passage of the mandate, but also that the volume of pre-NAGPRA studies focused on Native American skeletal collections may have been overestimated. That said, we must point out that in recent years, fewer researchers have approached the NMNH seeking to perform analyses of our Native American skeletal collections. This is due to a combination of factors, including reduced research funding opportunities, as well as a mistaken assumption that our Native American collections are closed for research--which in fact, they are not.

In addition to physical anthropologists, archaeologists also have been concerned that repatriation would adversely affect research opportunities. To gauge how repatriation might have affected bioarchaeological research, we reviewed all papers published in American Antiquity between 1985 and 1996. From 1985 through 1989, only 4 percent of the total papers published focused on Native American human remains; from 1990 through 1996, they total 7 percent. While these percentages are small, there actually appears to have been a slight increase in published studies of Native American remains in the years following repatriation. As with the AJPA data, the American Antiquity data also suggest that bioarchaeological studies focusing on Native American human remains comprise a very small part of published archaeological research.

While repatriation so far does not appear to have affected the volume of publications, it has led some researchers to be more circumspect in considering research questions and analytical techniques. Certainly destructive analyses, such as isotopic and DNA studies, must be approached more cautiously, and in many cases have been prohibited as a result of concerns over Native American sensitivities. However, the impact of such restrictions should be evaluated in terms of the quality of the lost data, and whether or not other data can mitigate that loss. For example, stable isotopic analysis of human bone can reveal important dietary information. When such studies are not permitted, other methods can be used to fill the gap, such as archaeobotanical and faunal research. As for DNA analysis, its utility for illuminating Native American history and prehistory may be more limited than popular perceptions would suggest. Currently, DNA analysis is limited by the absence of definable, population-specific genetic markers. It is further limited by the difficulty of deriving DNA from skeletal remains, potential laboratory contamination, and the prohibitive expense of the technique (Carlson et al. 1997).

While many of the tribes are strongly opposed to destructive testing, not all are. In 1993, a University of Wisconsin researcher approached our repatriation office with a request to take samples of bone collagen from individuals being readied for return to the Chugach Eskimos of Prince William Sound, Alaska. We recommended that she make direct contact with the repatriation representative for the tribe, explain the importance of the research, and ask permission to take the samples, which she did successfully. Was her success simply a matter of reaching out to the tribe in an honest and meaningful way? Our office also has facilitated repatriation-related osteological studies in collaboration with Native communities from Point Hope and the Seward Peninsula in Alaska (Mudar et al. 1996), and osteologists have recently received support from Great Plains tribes to study pathological conditions to evaluate overall health during the pre- and postcontact periods (Miller 1995). We suspect there are many such examples, and that this kind of engagement is the best way to begin building a solid foundation for Native American community-supported archaeology and physical anthropology in the future.

The repatriation process is providing a clearer understanding of, and perhaps some closure to, a painful period of Native American history. Studies and documentation of the Contact Period can be augmented and revitalized in the context of repatriation, and are of keen interest to many of the Native communities involved. As dialogue concerning the treatment of all human remains continues to evolve both inside and outside anthropology, argument over the rights and privileges of scientists to conduct studies unfettered by public opinion must be evaluated within the context of the research. Data concerning the scope and scale of this research suggest that rather than halting bioarchaeological and physical anthropological research, repatriation has, in fact, generated new opportunities for collaboration. The flowering of these studies in the context of repatriation holds the promise of revitalizing the discipline of anthropological archaeology itself.

1 Summaries of all NMNH repatriation reports cited can be found on the NMNH Repatriation Office Web site at

Thomas W. Killion and Paula Molloy are with the Repatriation Office at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

References Cited

Baugh, T. G., and S. Makseyn-Kelley
1992 People of the Stars: Pawnee Heritage and the Smithsonian Institution. Report on file, Repatriation Office, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Billeck, W. T., and J. Urcid
1995 Assessment of the Cultural Affiliation of the Steed-Kisker Phase for Evaluation by the National Museum of natural History native American Review Committee. Report on file, Repatriation Office, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Bray, T., and T. W. Killion
1994 Reckoning with the Dead: The Larson Bay Repatriation and the Smithsonian Institution. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

Carlson, K. M., P. Molloy, and T. W. Killion
1997 Determining the Biological Affiliation of Human Remains: An Assessment of Available Techniques. Report on file, Repatriation Office, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Echo-Hawk, R.
1997 Forging a new ancient history for native America. In Native Americans and Archaeologists: Stepping Stones to Common Ground, edited by N. Swidler, K. E. Dongoske, R. Anyon, and A. S. Downer, pp. 88-102. AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek.

Jones, D. G., and R. J. Harris
1997 Contending for the Dead. Nature 386: 15-16.

Killion, T. W., S. Brown, and J. S. Speaker
1992 Naevahoo'ohtseme: Cheyenne Repatriation. Report on file, Repatriation Office, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Meighan, C. W.
1996 The American Committee for the Preservation of Archaeological Collections Newsletter, November 1996, Whittier, CA 90609.

Miller, E.
1995 Refuse to be Ill: European Contact and Aboriginal Health in Northeastern Nebraska. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Arizona State University, Tempe.

Minthorn, P.
1997 Archaeology of the Dammed. Common Ground 2(1): 34-39.

Molloy, P., P. E. Minthorn, and G. P. Aronsen
1996 Inventory and Assessment of Human Remains Identified as Nez Perce in the National Museum of Natural History. Report on file, Repatriation Office, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Morell, V.
1995 Who Owns the Past? Science 268: 1424-1426.

Mudar, K., K. Nelson, S. Speaker, R. Scott, S. Street, and E. Miller
1996 Inventory and Assessment of Human Remains and Associated Funery Objects from Northeast Norton Sound, Bering Straits Native Corporation, Alaska in the National Museum of Natural History. Report on file, Repatriation Office, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Na Iwi O Na Kupuna O Mokapu v. Dalton, 894 F. Supp. 1397 (D. Hawaii 1995).

National Park Service
1997 Wooden figure remains at center of dispute. Common Ground 2(1): 64.

Riding In, J.
1992 Report Verifying the Identity of Six Pawnee Scout Crania Held at the Smithsonian Institution and National Museum of Health and Medicine: Part II. Report on file, Native American Rights Fund, Boulder, Colorado.

Smythe, C.
1998 Wounded Knee Case. Ongoing consultation, Repatriation Office, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Speaker, J. S., B. S. Byrd, J. W. Verano, and G. Stromberg
1994 Inventory and Assessment of Human Remains Potentially Related to the Apache and Yavapai Tribes in the National Museum of Natural History. Report on file, Repatriation Office, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Steinacher, T. L., J. R. Bozell, G. F. Carlson, and J. Ludwickson
1991 Nebraska State Historical Society Position Statement: Section B. Report on file, Repatriation Office, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Svaldi, D.
1989 Sand Creek and the Rhetoric of Extermination: A Case Study in Indian-White Relations. University Press of America, Lanham, Maryland.

Swidler, N., K.E. Dongoske, R. Anyon, and A. S. Downer
1997 Native Americans and Archaeologists: Stepping Stones to Common Ground. Altamira Press, Walnut Creek.

Thornton, R.
1990 The Cherokees: A Population History. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.

Watkins, J., L. Goldstein, K. Vitelli, and L. Jenkins
1995 Accountability: Responsibilities of Archaeologists to Other Interest Groups. In Ethics in American Archaeology: Challenges for the 1990s, edited by M. J. Lynott and A. Wylie, pp. 33-37. Special Report. Society for American Archaeology, Washington, D.C.

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