For the past, for the future : NAGPRA, repatriation, and the Native American-archaeologist relationship
Ian Edward Kretzler
May 9, 2012
Department or Program
The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) fundamentally altered the practice of archaeology in the United States. Born from decades of native activism that problematized scholarly practices that alienated Native Americans from their sacred histories, NAGPRA forced archaeologists to reconsider their work vis-à-vis native peoples. The law established new legal protections for Native American artifacts and requirements that mandate the repatriation of sacred human remains and burial objects from federally funded museums to culturally affiliated tribes. The decade following NAGPRA’s passage can largely be described as a success, as tribes and scholars worked together in a multitude of ways that ensured the study of the past was to the benefit of all. Since then, however, cracks have begun to emerge in the nascent archaeologist-Native American relationship, and for the first time, the effectiveness and viability of NAGPRA has been called into question. Thus, despite significant progress, the future of the Native American-archaeologist relationship is unclear. In this thesis, I consider the following question: can cultures with disparate and seemingly irreconcilable worldviews share in the study of the past without alienation and subjugation? With this guiding question, I discuss the historical treatment of native peoples, especially by early anthropology and archaeology; 20th century native activism and the passage of pre-NAGPRA heritage legislation; the 1990 passage of NAGPRA; the successes of NAGPRA’s first decade; the law’s problems, with particular focus on the individual known as Kennewick Man; and potential legal amendments and alterations to archaeological ethics codes that would help resolve these issues. I conclude that the future of the Native American-archaeologist relationship is a bright one, provided that the two sides commit to interactions based on open honest communication, mutually beneficial solutions, and the recognition that Native Americans, as the descendants of the cultures archaeologists often study, feel profound connections to their pasts that merit respect and validation.