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Working Together

From Specimens to SAA Spearkers:
Evolution by Federal Mandate

Gary White Deer

Associate editor's note: The following article was first presented at the Opening Session, "Changes in Attitudes, Changes in Latitudes: Relationships between Archaeologists and Native Americans" at the 62nd Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Nashville, Tennessee, on April 2, 1997. This article addresses the need to develop a reconciliatory relationship between Native Americans and archaeologists and proposes a way in which that can be effected. This need is more compelling today than it was a year ago. The recent debate over the remains of the Kennewick man and SAA's position on the proposed Hasting NAGPRA amendments has done little to foster a reconciliatory relationship, rather it has probably done more to polarize the issues. I hope this article will help to stimulate constructive dialogue within SAA.


This year 1966 unfurled like a Vaudeville landscape, a backdrop lowered behind an American performing center stage, flush with postwar boom. It was an America that was dutifully paving over itself, engaged in an incredible make-over that demolished its own cultural markers, and asphalted its own short-term and tenuous immigrant history. While America alternately bulldozed and tap danced, a small, intent group bearing field notes and calipers waited in the theater wings to observe the curtain rise on another special act, one of new federal policy. Then, as now, this particular act played to its own select box of professional devotees. As the curtain rose, and while more general audiences snored, academics and lawyers broke into what has amounted to a 30-year-plus round of sustained applause.

If the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 left the collective attention span of its general American audience wandering toward the exits, Native America wasn't even allowed in the theater. There were a few of us perhaps outside, just around the corner from the ticket booth, who probably heard the scattered but determined applause, urban newcomers caught in the prelude of a government relocation program. Most of us though were still well out of town, in Indian Country, or Native Hawaii, or in Native Alaskan areas, places where those writing and staging federal policy hadn't considered playing to yet.

That was too bad. Aside from the obvious entertainment value of pitting "bone jockeys" against their potential specimens, Native America has always appreciated, in cultural terms, the concept of historic preservation, and we have our own methodologies concerning its application. Instead, that slow, contentious process leading to mutual understanding would be further delayed, until in this decade another federal enactment would mandate that Native America be allowed into the Big Top. Now that we have, so to speak, arrived, we are noticing that the applause has lessened a bit. Those most likely to be clapping now seem to be lawyers.

On the eve of the National Historic Preservation Act, Native America was without its own voice. General American society had, over the years and through various government policies and practices, effectively muzzled tribal nations. These policies and practices were not just effective political intimidation; more than this, they served as an aggregate of rationalizations that documented a pervasively abusive relationship between an immensely powerful perpetrator and its victims.

In 1966 Native Americans were still generally treated as wards of the federal government. With limited exception, we were considered to be inarticulate, backward, and given over to superstition. We were mostly regarded as a colorful but nevertheless benighted people, whose one redemptive opportunity consisted of assimilating into the lower and middle ranks of the American hierarchy. To this end, Indian children in appalling numbers were routinely transported hundreds of miles from their families and tribal communities to serve out their primary and secondary school years in boarding schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In most cases, native religious life survived underground, concealed as far as was possible from the inquisitive zeal of Christian mission boards. As might be expected, the free exercise of tribal sovereignty was severely restricted as well. Among the Oklahoma Choctaw, for example, elections were banned by federal policy. Instead, a federally appointed "Principal Chief" was allowed to preside over the ongoing dismantling of tribal lands and resources. Decades of this special kind of care and attention had not failed to achieve special results; American Indians during this recent period attained the lowest life expectancy rates and the highest infant mortality rates in the country.

Most frequently, the federal government acted as both policymaker and public spokesman for tribal affairs. The abuser had effectively stilled the voice of the abused, and within a long, enforced silence, declared itself to be both guardian and benefactor. The civil rights protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s shattered that prolonged silence. Native America, like the rest of the country, found itself caught up in the rising tide of anti-establishment sentiment that engaged all levels of American society. Perhaps ironically, the numbers of white American youth in beads and headbands were often seen by us as a sort of sign or turning point. Activist protests at Alcatraz and Cass Lake quickly crescendoed into intertribal solidarity, a common Indian cause embodied by the motto of the American Indian Movement--Sovereignty, Land, and Culture--variations of which frequently surface as Indian conference themes today.

This period of challenge and confrontation engendered a widespread backlash against the natives-as-specimens mentality of Western empiricism. Initially, this backlash was directed at cultural anthropologists, perhaps because these folks were more obvious targets to communities where they had ticked everyone off with so many insensitive questions. It could be assumed perhaps that while the "anthros" (as these folks were called by militants) were being duly castigated, archaeologists sporting field notes and callipers, cheered by the distraction, quietly continued their methodical livelihood, which included digging up the militants' antecedents; testing, photographing, cataloging, and with the impassivity of coroners; and recording their most lively presumptions in technical journals. It would only be a bit later when Native America, in its turn, would begin to question the propriety of such practices.

In 1973 United States forces surrounded an essentially unarmed group of Indian civil rights activists at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. The army lobbed high caliber rounds at will into the tiny hamlet, restrained only by the presence of world media attention. The siege would prove to be the watershed incident of Indian protest for the 1970s.

The venue that the American Indian Movement (AIM) picked was a poor tactical location, but rich in symbolism as the site of the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre, fewer than 100 years earlier. Many Indian communities can still easily recall the AIM caravans heading toward South Dakota, and the friends and relatives who joined them. When it was all over, of course, a prolonged civil rights protest had proven no match for the greatest military power in the world. Closure on social justice issues would elude the Disco Decade, as it had eluded America for almost 200 years.

In spite of this lack of closure, or perhaps because of it, Native America remained imbued with its new sense of solidarity. This renewed combination of sovereignty and social activism, diffused through emerging ranks of Native American professionals and pro-active traditionalists, would help to provide the impetus for the passage of Public Law 101-601, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA.

While Indian nationalist leaders paled overall in comparison to their more illustrious and eloquent historical predecessors and while they often succeeded in alienating much of their own perceived constituency, their protests were nevertheless courageous, legitimate, and long overdue. Native America found its voice, and began to speak in economic, political, education, medical, and preservationist terms, engendering commitments in these areas that would become the basis for the current infrastructure of tribal governments.

As the doctrine of tribal sovereignty began to slowly reassert itself, economic development programs, fueled by an infusion of federal monies, followed. The Mississippi Choctaw first contracted an archaeologist in 1976 to survey the site of an industrial park. Other tribal nations, relatively early on, began to see the advantages of developing their own cultural resource programs to counterpoise incursions by federal and state agencies and began relationships with contract archaeologists as well.

The decade of the 1980s was one marked by steady economic growth and a consolidation of power, of tribal employment, of an explosive reinterpretation of the American dream. Under tribal scrutiny, Indian Health Service hospitals began to modernize, no longer viewed simply as dispensers of topical medicine or places to die. Native Americans were graduating from high schools and then colleges in record numbers. Although far from the national standards, Native American per-capita income increased substantially during this period of more amicable assimilation.

Traditional Native American religious beliefs, for the most part however, remained relatively unchanged. Most traditional communities were still unaware that their ancestors were being unearthed and studied with regularity. The enormous collections of human remains housed in universities and other institutions were not generally known. Tribal members who knew of these desecrations ascribed it to the usual basic lack of respect and understanding of things spiritual by Western science and were unable to pursue their concerns further.

Meanwhile, Yuchis continued to wash their hair with spicewood after funerals, Shawnees continued to fire rifles at grave side to startle the spirit into departing, Choctaws continued to observe poled pulling ceremonies during proscribed mourning periods, and Seminoles continued to place items with their burials. Such trait continuation throughout the whole of Native America ensured that original understandings between the seen and unseen worlds were maintained.

In sum perhaps, the most significant development to occur during this 25-year era was the rise of tribal governments. These political entities are required by federal law to adhere to a European American form of contentious democracy, in exchange for federal recognition. While stopping short of fielding armies and navies, tribal governments nevertheless are now the repositories of semi-autonomy. They are empowered as limited participants in the articulation of current federal law. The re-emergence of tribal sovereignty, albeit in limited form, is the real reason why Native Americans are now sought as conference speakers and not merely as specimens by archaeology. Like it or not, Western science now has to consult with us, to regard us, and tribal governments are now the licensed intermediaries of that mandated exchange.

NAGPRA was the landmark legislation that created the unique space Native America and archaeology occupy today. It is, to be sure, evolution by federal mandate, an ongoing process that has changed forever how the occupants of this new landscape may regard one another. So, with these general observations loosely in tow, where are we going, generally speaking, with all these cranio-metrics-based assumptions about Kennewick Man? Bill Lipe, past president of SAA, has been quoted as saying, "Genes don't get transmitted in tribal sized packages. Our view is that the relationship is so remote that repatriation of the skeleton would not reflect what congress intended in the law." (T. Mauro, "Bones of Contention", Preservation 1997, January/February:22)

This argument in and of itself is easily answerable, at least in the short term. Whether or not the Kennewick skeleton is truly Caucasoid is a moot point. It would be an argument from ignorance to suggest that simply because no known data exists to directly connect this skeleton to Native America that there is, in fact, no direct connection.

Beyond any of this, however, what I really wanted to hear Lipe say was something like "We appreciate Native America's cultural and racial connection to these issues and support their doctrine of tribal sovereignty in these matters. However, because of the unprecedented potential for data retrieval which we believe will contribute to a common understanding, we also support a compromise agreement with those tribal nations now involved in the repatriation of Kennewick Man, and SAA looks forward to assisting in a dialogue toward this end." Something not that wordy perhaps, but certainly words to that effect.

Aside from the obvious merits of either position on the Kennewick issue, larger questions present themselves. How effective are we at communicating really, when going to federal court is perceived as a first option? Where are all those resources of mediation like the NAGRPA Review Committee or the Repatriation Coalition, and why aren't they being utilized?

In this regard, SAA is to be congratulated for continuing the dialogue with Native America begun in New Orleans in 1996. I suggest that this communication continue, because frequent communication can lead to effective communication. On these issues, ongoing communication between all parties is essential.

Although SAA may not always find itself in agreement with portions of the Native American position on issues like repatriation, there should always remain in any of your public positions ample room for reconciliation. We have far more in common with each other than we may now realize, and it will always be to our mutual advantage to pursue common ends.

Are tribal governments doing enough to enhance a reconciliatory relationship? On the tribal side, it must be realized, science has been embraced as a tool. In fact, there are now archaeologists who owe their incomes to tribal governments. Now, let me ask in relation to this fact, how many Native American traditionalists are there in the pay of archaeology as consultants, and at what comparable salaries and benefits?

Is this relationship as important to Native America as it is to archaeology? Archaeology, if it plays its cards right, far from damaging its livelihood, can help to effect a new paradigm within which it may dine at the NAGPRA table for years to come. (This may not always be so for tribal governments, which have no comparable empirical institutions, and whose mission must also include economic development and the overall quality of life of its citizens.) With regard to any proposed amendments to NAGPRA, I would like to propose an amendment to SAA that I assure you Native America will fully support.

Nashville, Tennessee, the site of the 1997 SAA annual meeting, is a major conduit for the trafficking of Native American grave goods. Virtually the whole of the South and Southwest has become pockmarked with the efforts of pot hunters. Particularly in the south, pot hunting is a major growth industry. Mussel shell boats now park over submerged burial grounds in the middle of the Tennessee River, as their occupants loot graves underwater. At recreational bends of our great waterways traffickers in Indian grave goods pass out business cards to tourists. Flea markets abound in grave trophies, as locals with metal detectors comb remote sites, and clandestine organizations of grave robbers like the Rebel Club reckon their membership in the thousands. Burial sites are under wholesale attack by industrial development as well.

It's time to take a stand both on principle and on policy. As NAGPRA does not currently address private land issues, I propose the Society for American Archaeology consider giving its support to an amendment that will in strong measure prohibit the looting and desecration of burials and objects of cultural patrimony now on private lands. While this proposed amendment will not stem the hemorrhaging of remains and artifacts from public lands, it will make a critical difference on property where the interests of the common good should proclaim these objects to be American cultural patrimony. Such a proposed amendment would achieve a measure of solidarity between archaeology and Native America that could serve as a framework within which all pending issues might be reconciled.

The day for proactive archaeology has arrived. It is now time to join with tribal nations to forge a common agenda, to create a common ground within this space that federal policy has mandated us.

Native America has struggled and achieved much since passage of NAGPRA. We have faced down congressional bullies, stood up for our civil liberties, revitalized our traditions, and witnessed a rebirth of our tribal institutions against all conceivable odds. Perhaps it has been our destiny to achieve this. We do know that our hard-won victories are linked to the common destiny of all who witness injustice and try to right it, who feel our reverence for our kindred dead and try to respect it, and who understand the sacredness of life and then try to live in a sacred manner. We invite the esteemed SAA again to continue with us in a spirit of reconciliation and in common cause. It is in this spirit that I leave you.

Gary White Deer is current president of Keepers of the Treasures, and is director of the Native American Indian Association in Nashville.

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