Duane Champagne: Scientific community attacks NAGPRA

"Who owns the past? That’s the headline of an editorial in the April copy of Scientific American. The question is occasioned by regulations that the U.S. Department of the Interior added to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in May 2010. As the magazine puts it, these rules “allow tribes to claim even those remains whose affiliation cannot be established scientifically, as long as they were found on or near the tribes’ aboriginal lands.”

Scientific American argues that the addenda to NAGPRA are too favorable to American Indian communities and that archaeologists should be having a greater say in these matters. “In our view,” the editorial board says, “the new regulations should be repealed or, at least, revised.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the argument against the new regulations is coached in Western theological terms: “In effect, they [the Indians] privilege faith over fact.”

Such a statement shows little understanding of the forms and strength of indigenous relations to ancestors and to the requirements of maintaining the spiritual stewardship of the land. From all appearances, Scientific American isn’t making much effort to understand indigenous cultures’ interpretations of reality, meaning, and life. Instead, the publication gives credence to scientific, professional, and nonspiritual understandings of the value and meaning of human ancestors and sacred funerary objects. As far as the editors are concerned, American Indian perspectives are irrelevant. They’re even irresponsible because they don’t protect human history and knowledge."

Get the Story:
Duane Champagne: A New Attack on Repatriation (Indian Country Today 4/9)

Related Stories:
Duane Champagne: Decades later, Vine Deloria resonates (3/28)

Join the Conversation