A Lawful Reckoning

UPDATE: Charlie Petit at Science Journalism Tracker has a very complimentary overview of the special package discussed below.

Twenty years ago, landmark legislation passed by the U.S. Congress revolutionized the field of archaeology in America. That much everyone can agree on.

But some anthropologists insist that the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) has allowed religion to trump science. Other anthropologists argue just as strongly that

science does not trump all other interests. Morality and justice limit science, as they should.

Today, Science magazine publishes a special section that examines NAGPRA’s impact to archaeology. The effects are considerable–for better and worse.

I’m one of the three contributors to the special section. As I was reporting the various stories, I felt as if I was navigating an intellectual and ethical minefield. The issues raised in the stories are as complex as they get when a branch of science must be reconciled with an ugly historical legacy. Things get even more complicated when you consider that some of the profession’s practices–both in the lab and the field–are still considered to be offensive to an entire culture.

I’m going to talk more about this in a follow-up post over the weekend. Meanwhile, go and have a look at Science’s website. The stories are available free of charge (which is unusual for Science. You just have to register). We’re hoping to get a discussion going at the site, so feel free to drop a comment over there.

I’ll provide one excerpt from an interview I did with Steve Lekson, a leading southwestern archaeologist. Lekson, who is the anthropology curator at the University of Colorado’s Museum of Natural History, in Boulder, has spent the last six years repatriating¬† hundreds of human remains and sacred objects. In a recent essay, Lekson talks candidly about how the experience triggered a sort of professional existential crisis. When we met a few months ago in Boulder, I asked him to elaborate:

The worst part, personally, was participating in reburials. The tribes asked us to do that. There was one particularly large reburial, where we arranged to get the money and facilitate what was going to happen. The tribes are legally in the driver’s seat at that point, but we agreed to help out. There were many sets of human remains, many pots. So we needed a backhoe, … chemical toilets, travel arrangements, this was a major logistical operation. The Indians [representing a Pueblo tribe] didn’t want to handle the remains, so the white guys did that. So I’m putting all these dead people down in the ground. And at the end of it, there’s a huge hole 60 to 70 feet long and 8 feet deep, and 10 feet wide, with its floor completely covered with human remains”‚ÄĚskeletons. It looked like something out of World War I. Lines and lines of skeletons. And I’m standing next to the Pueblo representatives. I don’t know whether I should apologize or what. Apologizing wouldn’t even begin to cover it. It’s one thing when they’re in a box on shelves. It’s another when they’re looking up at you.

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