Peter d’Errico: Stealing and stalling from Indians
"The acquisition and holding of human remains by a museum or academic institution is said to be different from grave robbing. Institutional grave robbing is described as scientific research. This argument goes back a long way. As David Hurst Thomas, author of “Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity,” writes, “Thomas Jefferson, America’s first scientific archaeologist, argued that Indians could – and really should – be studied as part of the rest of nature. Jefferson defined American Indians as specimens. …”

This kind of “specimen” thinking is related to the doctrine of “Christian discovery:” the idea that non-Christian peoples are not fully human. In this view, the remains of indigenous peoples are not sacred like the remains of Christians. The historical development of academic and museum collections and research claims of “studying” Native American remains is rooted in this religious racism. Indigenous burial grounds are like rocks and ore – part of the earth, available for “discovery,” digging, collection and examination.

Sen. Dan Inouye, D-Hawaii, speaking in favor of NAGPRA’s passage in 1990, said: “When human remains are displayed in museums or historical societies, it is never the bones of white soldiers or the first European settlers that came to this continent that are lying in glass cases. It is Indian remains. … This is racism.” Tony Hillerman explored these themes in his provocative novel, “Talking God,” written as NAGPRA was becoming law.

In fact, many museums, including the Smithsonian Institution, American Museums of Natural History, Field Museum of Natural History, and Harvard University, had already agreed prior to NAGPRA to repatriate Native American remains, indicating that religious-based, scientific racism against American Indians was no longer a viable excuse for their collections."

Get the Story:
Peter d'Errico: Kafka meets NAGPRA: When research becomes stalling (Indian Country Today 7/27)

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Peter d'Errico: Excising conquest from the law (6/26)
Peter d'Errico: The answer is indigenous sovereignty (5/29)