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Letters to the Editor

NAGPRA and the Demon-Haunted World

All origin myths are equally absurd, but some are more politically correct than others.

Recent articles on NAGPRA, in the SAA Bulletin, American Antiquity, the Anthropology Newsletter, Science, and on the wire services, warrant comment not only because of their implications for the future of archaeology as a "science-like" endeavor, but also because of what they say about the status of western science in general and the role that reasoned inquiry plays in western society. Although many readers might be inclined to dismiss these articles as irrelevant to their particular concerns, it seems clear that the worldview of western science is under serious and sustained assault and that there is a danger that "science-like" views of reality will perish in the face of a multipronged attack in which mysticism, religious fundamentalism, creationism, and belief in the paranormal combine with post-modernist academics to attack the critical realism and mitigated objectivity that are the central epistemological biases of the scientific worldview. The political climate has also become increasingly hostile in recent years as politicians, who generally misunderstand what science "is" or "does," have pandered to the often-vocal concerns of the various anti-science constituencies. The result is a loss of public confidence in the ability of science to resolve significant problems, an increase in the popularity of the various pseudo- or antiscientific worldviews, and a decline in the perceived credibility of rational thought as a method of inquiry about the nature of the world and the place of humans in it.

Most recent articles on NAGPRA are concerned with the repatriation to Native American claimants of human bones and artifacts recovered from government-sponsored archaeological excavations on public lands. These remains, as well as those found elsewhere in the world (e.g., in Israel and Australia), are perceived by western science to pertain to a generalized human past as part of a universal heritage not circumscribed by ethnic or cultural boundaries. However, legislation enacted in recent years has given the cultural traditions and religious beliefs of minorities greater weight under the law than the universalistic perspective that underlies scientific inquiry. Motivated by political expediency and the kind of anti-science sentiment alluded to above, the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) requires the consultation in archaeological excavation of very broadly defined Native American constituencies and mandates the repatriation and reburial, if so desired by native claimants, of all human remains and artifacts recovered from archaeological sites, including those not affiliated with any known or recognized Native American group.

NAGPRA is an unmitigated disaster for archaeologists, bioarchaeologists, and other physical anthropologists concerned with the study of human skeletal remains. This is because NAGPRA puts ethnicity and religious belief on an equal footing with science and thus provides a mandate for claims of affiliation by virtually any interested party. As is true of any ethnic or racial category, however, "Native Americanness" has only a political definition. Anthropologists acknowledge the statistical, clinal character of race (or, as we prefer to call it, subspecific variation); the government does not. State legislatures, which have often gone far beyond NAGPRA in their zeal to be politically correct, do not want to be bothered with such subtleties (after all, anthropologists are an even weaker political constituency than Native Americans), with the result that claims for the repatriation of human remains and "objects of cultural patrimony" can be extended to include just about anything identified as "affiliated" by a claimant. The result is that the process becomes entirely political, with western science, represented by archaeology, the inevitable loser.

Archaeology is admittedly a "small science," only weakly developed conceptually and characterized by few of the powerful law-like generalizations that underlie the spectacular, recent progress of mainstream, experimental "big science" disciplines like physics. Despite its many shortcomings, however, archaeology in the United States has always been a "science-like" endeavor in the sense that it subscribes to the same collection of materialist biases and assumptions that underlie all of western science. Moreover, its achievements have been substantial. It is simply a fact that knowledge of most pre-contact aboriginal cultures of the New World would have vanished without a trace were it not for archaeology (and the occasional presence of a western observer to record information about them). We are all the losers if, for reasons of political expediency, Native Americans rebury their past. One of the many ironies in the situation provoked by NAGPRA is that many Native American groups who favor the preservation of archaeological and skeletal collections are being co-opted by the actions of small, but vocal, activist minorities in cahoots with ignorant legislators and federal bureaucrats all too willing to sell the profession down the pike for the sake of short-term political gains.

NAGPRA, and similar legislation elsewhere, strikes at the very core of a "science-like" archaeology. Political considerations take precedence over disinterested evaluation of knowledge claims about the human past, with tragic and irreversible results. From the perspective of American archaeology, western science is not merely an optional or alternative "kind" of science -- it is the only "science" there is. NAGPRA uses politics to elevate cultural tradition and religious belief to the level of science as a paradigm for reality. A direct consequence of the national paroxysm of guilt surrounding the quincentenary, NAGPRA is bad law. It is in the interests of Native Americans and Anglo Americans alike that it be repealed. With all of its warts, western science is the most satisfactory paradigm for describing and explaining the experiential world that humans have ever developed. If archaeology turns its back on science and its materialist foundations, it will sacrifice whatever credibility it has acquired as an intellectual endeavor over the century or so of its existence.

G. A. Clark
Arizona State University


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