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Charting a Middle Ground in the NAGPRA Controversy: Secularism in Context

Joseph Schuldenrein

The contrasting perspectives recently articulated by G. A. Clark and Joe Watkins on either end of the NAGPRA controversy were both compelling and informed [SAA Bulletin 16(5): 22­25]. I found the conclusions promoted by each so well reasoned and substantive that it was necessary to step back and digest the positions from a distance. Having done so, I remain even more unconvinced that comprehensive resolutions to NAGPRA issues can be adjudicated by purely materialist or spiritual approaches. I propose a third alternative that merges the concerns of both Clark and Watkins. My argument centers on the flexibility of secularism in Western thinking to accommodate legitimate claims of (Native American) sovereignty in the disposition of their cultural heritage. Accommodation is absolutely critical if the archaeological community is intent on affecting national policies of paramount importance to the future of our profession. Insofar as Clark embodies the "Western materialist mode" and Watkins the "Native American perspective," my guess is that most members of the archaeological public will "lean" toward either camp, but acknowledge the validity of the opposing position. An inclusive position must recognize the need to live with NAGPRA (insofar as it is law) and then develop a formal position whose implementation can be supported by the greater archaeological community.

The Materialist vs. Native American Perspective in Theory and Practice

As an archaeologist trained during the latter period of the New Archaeology (late 1970s), I must state unequivocally that my professional training and convictions are materialist. In my practice as a geoarchaeologist, that perspective is only underscored over the course of my day-to-day activities. I would submit, further, that the vast majority of professionals setting the pace in contemporary archaeological thinking and practice are products of the same training and are grounded in the materialist dialectic. It is neither possible nor, I submit, desirable to "undo" decades of progressive and -- yes, scientific -- training in archaeology to subsume a series of problems that have emerged within the past decade. I would reiterate Clark's contention that Western science is, in fact, responsible for the discoveries of early people everywhere in the world (not just in North America). One would be hard pressed to corner any substantial segment of the archaeological community that would question baseline hypotheses of the peopling of the New World; specifically that sometime during the latter Pleistocene, people crossed into the New World from western Asia and began dispersing across the continent. There is a clear dichotomy between that posture and most Native American accounts of their emergence. Accordingly, the groundwork upon which NAGPRA legislation was established runs counter to the prevailing templates in which most professional archaeologists are grounded.

That said, most of us also practice archaeology in a world that is substantially removed from that in which we were trained. When archaeology was largely an academic pursuit its target practitioners and consumers were almost exclusively middle class, white, Judeo-Christian and perhaps, most significantly, secular. Secularism in the Judeo-Christian tradition opines that religious values and concepts are, in fact, diametrically opposed to the study of archaeology and anthropology. In this sense, Clark elegantly summarizes the secularist perspective noting that ". . . religious views of humans . . . are epiphenonomena (and - for a materialist- absurd)." However, following the Western materialist model somewhat further, it is clear that secularism is a product of long-term cultural evolution, specifically resulting when a society has achieved separation of church and state. The fruits of secularism, and most critically the freedom to apply scientific method, could only flourish when church and state were separated. This is demonstrable historically at every turn; witness the persecutions of Galileo and Copernicus during the Middle Ages, when church dogma asserted its acrimony to scientific thought. It was not until the 17th century in England that the sociopolitical climate was sufficiently permissive to tolerate the development of scientific method, as articulated by Sir Francis Bacon. Evolutionary theory is perhaps the crown jewel of scientific method and indeed, Western civilization.

In the prevailing culture (and the Judeo-Christian tradition), the idea of separation of church and state still forms the basis of Western governments and societies. The growth of evolutionary thinking and the progressive separation of church and state (i.e., secularism) in Western civilization are coeval trends, moving to optimal gains in the 20th century (albeit with several severe but short-lived setbacks, including the Nazi tyranny of the 1930s and 1940s). It must nevertheless be emphasized that secularism remains a subsystem that was ordained by the dominant culture -- here Judeo-Christian. While it has extended across the American landscape, and I submit for the better, it nevertheless reflects the thinking of the dominant group. It is in this environment that the systematic advances in archaeology from culture history to the New Archaeology to processualism and postprocessualism have progressed, mirroring, arguably, broader leaps in scientific method and exploration.

The results of these advances primarily affected the academically oriented constituencies identified earlier. However, as the consumption of archaeology passes from a largely academic domain peopled by the dominant culture to one that is applied and directly affects the interests of a nondominant segment of society, it becomes necessary to rethink the epistemological framework under which it is practiced. Most of us currently practice archaeology in a political landscape in which a disenfranchised segment of society -- Native Americans -- has been somewhat empowered, at least with respect to issues that affect that segment. Most materialists (especially Marxists) would argue that this is a positive turn of events, even though many may cringe with the prospect of a "step backward" for Western science. As a materialist also, I would argue for a need for secular tradition to emerge within the Native American perspective. However, historical materialists would counter that preconditions for the florescence of a society's secular tradition include first, the guardianship and autonomy of its tradition, and second, the emancipation of the society from religious authority. Then and only then is it possible for the society to think beyond religion.

Darwin was a product of 19th-century England, a society which had accommodated a form of secularism for nearly 700 years since the Magna Carta. Native Americans have never been the stewards of their own resources since the advent of Euroamericans on the continent. I am not certain that any views of Native American secularism have been articulated (as far as I am aware, although see below) and, second, it may simply not be part of the Native American worldview. Tom King (1998, Cultural Resource Laws and Practice. AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek, CA) has recently written that ". . . Indian tribes and other indigenous groups tend not to make clear separations between the secular and the sacred." Thus, in a materialist sense, it is simply not accurate to "lump" the Native American belief system with those of the mystics, paranormal, and creationists which as Clark suggests, threaten the future of "science-like" views of reality. Watkins has stated that it is possible to make an American anthropology an anthropology of all Americans, not just white Americans, by working together. While this may appear Pollyannaish, I would argue that the liberal model of Western civilization is successful only if it is inclusive. This would not imply that Native American identity be absorbed into the mainstream, nor that its tradition be diluted, but simply that the best of the tradition can and should be incorporated into Western civilization and, further, that it can only enrich the fabric of society. If we accept the gathering momentum of the Western model and its pivotal tenets (inclusive of the scientific method) -- a point that is almost not arguable in the post-Cold War era -- at some point Native Americans will either develop their own secular traditions or become sufficiently integrated into Western culture to spawn a distinct secular perspective. I suspect that the latter scenario is most likely and I believe we see the cultural signals already, as Native Americans progressively merge their own institutions into America's mainstream economic and political institutions (for better or worse). "Free enterprise zones" are no more than Great Society code words facilitating empowerment for given minorities to develop programs for accumulating ethnic wealth; the casinos are glaring and successful examples of classic American profit centers. Against this backdrop, the reaching out of both sides -- archaeologists and Native Americans alike -- will only accelerate the trend. By the same token, these developments are clearly all being subsumed under the umbrella of Western materialism and its secular, pluralistic orientation.

The Power of Secularism in Ethnohistorical Perspective

The ideological strength of secularism cannot be underestimated. It pervades thinking in diverse and unexpected sectors of the greater society. A classic and relevant example is the evolution of secular tradition in the Jewish European (Ashkenazic) culture, since its prominence, especially in the 20th century, bridges the divide between religious and materialist worlds. While modern Jewish secularism is traceable to Spinoza in 17th-century Holland (probably in conjunction with developments in scientific method!), it gained its strongest footholds within Ashkenazic communities in Eastern Europe between the two world wars, drawing inspiration from the October Revolutions in Russia. The secularists' worldviews were avowedly atheistic, yet they preserved strong cultural affinities to traditional Jewish institutions. Arguably, the nature of such affinities was driven by collective survival and ultimately a world view of community rather than dedication to anything associated with religion sensu stricto. Native American traditions are similarly rooted in an ethic at least partially dedicated to the preservation of the sense of community. Over the past 30 years, conflicting trends of increased tribal pride and self determination vs. integration into various mainstream sectors of American life signal that maintenance of community may be more compelling in the perpetuation of tradition than the religious component itself. If history is any guide, a secular tradition based on community preservation may then flourish, effectively outdistancing the code of religious beliefs initially responsible for ethnic identity. Similarities between Native Americans and Jews are all the more striking given their somewhat parallel histories as dispossessed and disenfranchised minorities. The corpus of adaptations and beliefs adopted by each group (religious as well as secular) were in no small measure fashioned by their status as minorities. It is not inconceivable to project that the transformation of their traditions -- from religious to secular -- may be analogous as well.

This brings us back to the NAGPRA controversy wherein the disposition of material remains underscores the heightened sensitivities within each group with respect to tradition and its maintenance. In Israel, there is considerable controversy about scientific burial excavation on the part of Orthodox religious Jews, outraged that bioanthropologists are undertaking paleopathological studies and opening up historic cemeteries. When secular Jewish governments were in power (until 1995), research interests held more sway than they do currently. While Israeli sociopolitics are not a blueprint for our own controversy -- given that ours is a more pluralistic society -- they do offer insights into conflict resolution when secular and religious interests are pitted against each other. Even in light of the NAGPRA controversy, I find it impossible to subscribe to non-secularist approaches. In 1988, I toured the World War II death camps of central Europe. The tour consisted of a group of Jewish Americans who were either survivors of the camps or their offspring. The trip to Auschwitz was especially hard-hitting for me. My parents had survived the camp and most of my uncles, aunts, cousins, and both sets of grandparents perished in its gas chambers and crematoria. One of the grimmest indicators of the magnitude of devastation and slaughter lay starkly exposed for all to see in the central portion of the camp itself. Bones -- all human -- emerged everywhere, fragmented, pulverized, charred; the sediment itself was bone meal. As we walked around the site, several of us, secular Jews and generally professionals, stopped, spent some time gathering our thoughts, and began looking at and digesting the landscape. I picked up a bone here and there and examined it, as did several medical doctors. While the doctors discussed pathologies, I began looking at the place as an archaeological site (although any construct of a mortuary site defies taxonomic association), drifting directly to a consideration of site formation process reflective of my own training as a geoarchaeologist. These bones could have been the remains of our relatives, yet we were nonetheless moved to examine the science of it all. Several members of the group approached us and reminded us that Jewish law prohibits "desecration of the deceased" -- here even the simple acts of looking and examining. Out of respect for the religious tradition, we reluctantly moved on, pondering our findings and assessing them in the surrealistic context of personal impact, massive carnage, and inhuman devastation.

Recalling my own thoughts of that day, I would take issue with Joe Watkins and stress that one can be passionate and still do science. More importantly, I would argue that the secular tradition accommodates a tremendous degree of tolerance and injects a great measure of respect for tradition while pushing and even beneficially objectifying the frontiers of knowledge. In fact, my lingering thoughts of that day were that I could help spread the word of inhumane treatment by undertaking a site formation study of that site.

Formulating a Comprehensive Strategy

To bridge the gap between materialist and Native American perspectives, it will be necessary to integrate the concerns of the minority community. Since Native Americans have not had the opportunity to serve as custodians of their own material culture, it is not reasonable to assume that a secular perspective will develop overnight. My assumption is that Western civilization is here to stay and that the adjustments will be made. Secular and liberal society is constructed around the axis of inclusion and the materialist philosophy is designed to fortify rather than to parse. Native American empowerment will ultimately herald integration into the prevailing, mainstream culture even as it helps to fashion and change the face of that culture. In this way, I believe that a common ground will be developed that will allow science to proceed with all due sensitivity paid to segments of society that have been denied their own patrimony since the advent of Euroamericans. The arguments over NAGPRA will provide necessary insights as archaeologists navigate new terrain and formulate innovative strategies that assimilate minority interests while expanding the reach of scientific inquiry. Arguments such as the ones set forth in these pages will only help chart the way for future resolution. ·

Joseph Schuldenrein is with Geoarchaeology Research Associates, a CRM firm based in New York.

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