During this past year the Committee on Native American Relations has responded to several informal requests for input from the president of SAA, Vincas Steponaitis, and formally responded to a National Park Service draft of the technical report, "Air Force Consultation with Native Americans." Additionally, much of the year was spent in transitioning the chair responsibilities from former chair, Joe Watkins, to the current chair, Kurt Dongoske.
Also during this year, the Committee on Native American Relations was consulted by Vin Steponaitis regarding the NAGPRA amendments (H.R. 2893). Up to this point, this consultation consisted of telephone discussions with the committee chair. The committee would like to take this opportunity to provide comments on these proposed amendments to the Board of Directors. Overall, the committee feels that these amendments would disrupt many currently evolving constructive relationships between archaeologists and Native Americans. We expect the response by Native American tribes to these amendments to be negative. The amendments will be perceived as an attempt to shift the power balance back to the scientific community and away from tribes, thereby diminishing their voice in decisions regarding their ancestors.
The ability to do scientific study within the parameters of NAGPRA have always been there. The reality is that few, very few, federal agencies have utilized this ability through supporting interdisciplinary scientific research, or any scientific research, to address questions of cultural affiliation or other pertinent scientific research questions. This reluctance of federal agencies to promote scientific studies is probably a result of a combination of reasons--from no money to following the path of least political resistance. The fact of the matter is that SAA, in assisting Representative Hastings in drafting these amendments, appears to be aiding a knee-jerk reaction to the Kennewick situation by attempting to correct an administrative problem with a legislative solution. This is never an effective solution. The Committee on Native American Relations feels that the goals of SAA would be better served if it directed it's attention to efforts to ensure that federal agencies actually comply with the language of NAGPRA rather than drafting legislative language that reduces the Native American voice in how federal agencies treat the remains of their ancestors.
As chair of the Committee on Native American Relations, I feel that the recent involvement of SAA in drafting the NAGPRA amendments sends an inconsistent message to the Committee on Native American Relations members and the SAA membership regarding SAA's position toward developing relations with Native Americans. The recent SAA ethics statement and the similar changes in SAA bylaws identify the Native American community as one of SAA's constituencies, one that SAA should be responsive to. Additionally, in 1996 SAA formally endorsed three symposia at the annual meetings that addressed the issue of relations between Native Americans and archaeologists. The papers presented at these three symposia were compiled into a publication, Native Americans and Archaeologists: Stepping Stones to Common Ground, which was also supported by SAA and the proceeds from which go to SAA's Native American Scholarship Fund. Over the past three years I have been impressed by the positive steps that SAA has made in improving the relationship with Native Americans. Yet, the Board of Directors' decision to participate in drafting the NAGPRA amendments has threatened--if not diminished--the progress that has been made in the last few years.
The Committee on Native American Relations' charge is to "increase understanding by archaeologists of the issues of concern to Native Americans, to promote understanding by Native Americans of the value and relevance of archaeology, and to foster better relationships between both groups." At this point, as chair, I would be hesitant to approach Native American groups for the purpose of promoting a better understanding of the value and relevance of archaeology, given the recent involvement of SAA in the NAGPRA amendments. In order to clarify what I perceive as inconsistencies in SAA's policy toward improving relations with Native Americans, I respectfully request that the Board of Directors clarify its position for the Committee on Native American Relations.
Kurt E. Dongoske is chair of the Committee on Native American Relations.