Previous pageTable of Contents Next Page

Working Together --

International Implications of
the Impact of Repatriation
in Nevada Museums

Amy Dansie

Editor's note: This paper was prepared for the symposium, "Impact of Repatriation from an International Perspective," and was presented at the 63rd Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Seattle.

One of the greatest impacts of repatriation is the forced confrontation between traditional or spiritual models of reality and the Euroamerican system of beliefs based on science. Of course I cannot resolve such a complex issue here, but how this challenge affects one museum system provides an example of the broader implications of this confrontation. Nevada has collections of international significance and significant repatriation experience.

On the eve of federally-mandated repatriation, over 200 human burials were washed out of their resting place in Stillwater Marsh of western Nevada by the devastating floods of the great 1982­1983 El Niño. Anticipating the change in national human remains policy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribes, and the Nevada State Museum worked together to build an accessible underground crypt to bury the remains, providing the possibility of future research and additional space for reburial. Because the question of affiliation was left open in this pre-NAGPRA agreement, future decisions regarding affiliation could be based on the interpretation of data being assembled and synthesized by the museum's long-term Lahontan Basin Prehistory Project. As the nation's representatives began to address the repatriation issue, the Stillwater Crypt reburial solutionwith its ideals of preservation of scientific values while meeting the spiritual needs of the Native American community was recognized in the Senate Record when the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was being crafted. We thought we were on the right track in the repatriation issue, and apparently so did Congress. Since then, the impact of repatriation on the Nevada State Museum has been immense and complex.

In 1990 the Congress passed NAGPRA (PL 601.101). The requirement to perform an inventory of all human remains and associated objects and to identify those subject to the various provisions of NAGPRA, had wide-ranging impacts in the Nevada Division of Museums and History. Because we receive federal funding, all our collections are included. A NAGPRA inventory requires the accurate identification, reintegration, and well-documented transfer to affiliated descendants of all remains of Native American ancestry. Essential for full compliance with both the spirit and letter of the law, the inventory also requires accurate identification of non-Indian remains, and of populations that left no living descendants, or descendants now geographically far removed. During our repatriation experiences, the inventory took an unexpected twist of international significanceone that remains unresolved today.

Impact on the Museum

Burials are generally very rare in Nevada, but one area is an exception: the Lahontan Basin of western Nevada. Our original estimate of perhaps 100 burials was, in reality, an unbelievable 550 individuals once the fragments and miscellaneous forensic cases were added to the older Nevada Historical Society and Lost City Museum inventories. Almost none were fully analyzed archaeologically, and less than half are properly documented, but most are of great scientific value. Our small staff is virtually overwhelmed by the actual tasks behind repatriation, because we still have to serve the public and comply with the daily demands of our "real jobs."

The dry caves of western Nevada have preserved thousands of perishable artifacts and many well-preserved, but often displaced, human and dog burials. More than 50 years of ongoing research and various levels of curation have separated the bones from their associated items, and sometimes, from each other. For any given human remains, tracking down all relevant data and artifacts, matching the field notes with the catalog and the various scientific analyses, there is always at least one thing that doesn't match up. Each of these details can take hours of sorting and combing through records. The harder we hit the work, the harder it grabs us, sucking day after day, year after year, out of our careers.

This has resulted in 10,000 hours spent over the past nine years of my life creating a complete inventory of every burial ever excavated in Nevada prior to 1900, with all dates, provenience, and associated artifacts entered into a computerized data retrieval system.

Much of this time has included consulting with tribal officials, studying the law, analyzing the evidence, and trying to understand NAGPRA's finer details for compliance. But the question of affiliation has become the most difficult challenge of repatriation in Nevada. Based on the abundance of unsynthesized data, we concluded that only a thorough scientific analysis could resolve the complexity of determining affiliation with existing tribes. These myriad data will be coordinated for affiliation research by an advanced GIS system, initially funded by the U.S. Navy for cultural resource management expanded with funds from the Nevada legislature. We plan to link the chronometric, geographical, archaeological, and biological data with tribal information on origins, intertribal relationships, and other traditional sources of knowledge about the past to reveal patterns of human population dynamics through time.

This impact of repatriation is a very positive one, because we have a new motivation with adequate funding to synthesize the vast records from the dry caves and the knowledge of living native people of Nevada, using the powerful technology now available. There is great potential for revolutionary new insights into the past, although it will require much time and effort. We have assembled a team of interdisciplinary experts in paleogenetics, Great Basin archaeology, ethnography, and physical anthropology to design, compile, and interpret the results under state and private funding.

Impact on Science, Local Issues

In the Great Basin, the human burials in the museum collections represent a vast time depth, with an almost continuous radiocarbon date series from 100 to 11,000 years ago. Cultural or biological affiliation with the historic tribes in residence cannot be demonstrated from the currently available data. In fact, the opposite is indicatedthere is more likely no or a very distant affiliation with most of the ancient remains, and over time there may have been several different groups advancing into and retreating from modern Paiute and Shoshone territory. This conclusion is based on differences in linguistics, biology, genetics, material culture, and lifestyle, and is buttressed by the native oral history that frequently describes battles between the Paiute and other groups in and around the Lahontan Basin.

Furthermore, some prehistoric cultures have no known correlates among ethnographic cultures, such as the Lovelock culture in western Nevada and the Fremont culture in Utah, which although contemporaneous, are apparently unrelated to each other as well. When asked by the tribes to demonstrate our evidence for disputing their affiliation to all the burials from their territory, we can refer to everything ever written on Great Basin prehistory and ethnography, but none of it includes the burial data. It simply hasn't been published or, for significant parts of the collections, hasn't even been analyzed until very recently.

Impact on Science, International Issues

Several recent major discoveries in the museum collections have changed what is known about the ancient people of the Lahontan Basin in the western Great Basin. Research conducted over the past five years has identified the oldest mummy in the New World (9,415 years old), and a total of five individuals over 9,000 years old, four of which are associated with a distinctive plain weave tule and cordage matting previously unrecognized in the New World. A whole new culture is emerging from current research unrelated to NAGPRA, but inevitably affected by it.

The 9,000- to 9,500-year-old Spirit Cave Man, Wizards Beach Man, and Kennewick Man share some distinctive traits not often found in later western Native Americans, but which may be a combination of retained traits of a pre-racial common ancestor of all modern humans, and the emerging proto-Indian. The multiple entry hypotheses, early coastal entry hypothesis, and other models of the peopling of the western hemisphere all can be reexamined in the light of these new data of early Holocene human variation in the New World. Ironically, these windows into the human past have developed just as the burials that could provide the answers are being claimed for repatriation worldwide.

The ancient Nevadans who survived the end of the Ice Age may not have survived the great droughts of the Altithermal, after 7,000 B.P., but then again, they may have. They may have descendants anywhere in the New World, depending on the actual history of their movements and adaptations through time. Only genetic tracking, and perhaps textiles, can reveal the destiny of these ancient ones. Science can reveal these great adventures of the human species on a scale and resolution beyond human memory. But to understand this, information from around the planet will have to be integrated, because it is not an isolated, local problem. Identification of these people is an international issue that can only be explored through careful analysis of facts, including the testimony of human skeletal remains and cultural patterns.

Impact on Human Relationships

Our accumulation and preliminary interpretation of the physical facts is causing tension in the consultation process with some of the Nevada tribes, who claim ancestry with any and all Native American remains from their historic territory. Some deny our right to finish the scientific analysis of the collections, to display artistic facial reconstructions of the Spirit Cave Man and Wizards Beach Man, and demand that we return all the remains immediately, regardless of affiliation. The Native American reaction to discussions of "non-Indian" traits in the early American skeletons is growing into a fierce conflict of spiritual assertions versus scientific questions about reality. If public comments and feedback to our museum are any measure, the harm done to Native American relations may be more serious than they realize. I feel caught against my will in a whirlpool of misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and misapprehensions about my motives. Although I stand accused of living in denial, that my avowed respect for the Native American people is a lie because I value scientific knowledge about their past more than their own religious beliefs, I am not yet ready to abandon this virtually hopeless battle.

Conflicts in Human Models of Reality

One thing I have learned to face is that Indian people who hold to traditional understandings of the universe do not agree with my culture's definition of reality. The physical facts I accept as valid evidence of time, physical appearance, genetic relationship, cultural affiliation, and historic continuity of human populations around the planet are rejected by some Native Americans in favor of a view that the creator made each group of people independently, and that they never moved from their place of origin. I do not believe it is disrespectful to doubt such assertions that are simply not defensible in the real world of human history.

At a major consultation meeting with the Northern Paiute and Shoshone in November 1997, I tried to ask about the abun-

 
"Ironically, these windows into the human past have developed just as the burials that could provide the answers are being claimed for repatriation worldwide."

dant documented evidence of their own oral history which included battles between the Paiute and other people in the Lahontan Basin. I was told that those stories were not the real Paiute history, only lies told to white people. They could not share their sacred knowledge to explain why these stories, steadfastly maintained as fact until nine years ago, were not real anymore. I understand open defiance of science, but not at the expense of factual history.

I never faced this conflict personally until repatriation became federal law. It hasn't been easy because I do care about both human rights and the scientific discovery of lost human history. My personal dilemma in trying to resolve this conflict of values and belief systems is a microcosm of the challenges facing science today in an increasing climate of hostility to rational, objective descriptions of reality. Sometimes I feel that repatriation may be the catalyst that brings such global value conflicts to open confrontation. Scientists can no longer assume they have incontestable rights of inquiry when they conflict with perceived and legislated human rights and opposing belief systems. That doesn't mean science is invalid, but it can no longer be assumed to be an unassailable right of the dominant Euroamerican cultures. However, I still maintain that truth is truth, and some facts about the past will shine in the light of cross-cultural scrutiny.

The gradual accumulation of archaeological facts has lead to many hypotheses of what occurred in the past. In the Great Basin, despite the lack of consensus, there is abundant evidence of major patterns of population replacement throughout the past 11,000 years. According to the spirit of NAGPRA, if the evidence strongly suggests that the identifiable earlier groups would disagree with being identified as ancestors of the Northern Paiute, then it is not right to say they are, despite the feelings of the living tribal people. Political correctness should not require compromising a truth established by facts that all of us can see and evaluate. Most of the possible earlier groups we have identified in Nevada are traditional enemies of the Paiute or have no living representatives; consequently, the best approach to take in standing up for the truth is not clear.

Mitigating the Impact on Science and Human Heritage in Spiritually Sensitive Solutions

I think we did the right thing with the 250 Stillwater burials exposed by flooding in the 1980s near Fallon. An accessible burial crypt allows for respectful reburial, without destroying the scientific potential in case important new research techniques are developed, some of which may be of major benefit to Indian people. It also provides a pre-negotiated reburial process for all newly exposed burials. With such a compromise, the destructive impact of repatriation can be minimized. A similar solution was reached in Utah, where disagreements between tribes regarding prehistoric territories made determination of affiliation for flood-exposed burials impossible.

My job as state museum anthropologist is to help people learn to celebrate our wonderful diversity while discovering how much we have in common. Learning from the ancient ones before they are reburied is now Nevada's official way of mitigating the negative impacts of repatriation. The Nevada legislature and governor have supported explicitly and generously the Nevada State Museum's efforts to establish affiliation through scientific analysis. It is good to know the museum anthropology department is not alone in upholding science and fact in this politically hostile

 
"The impact of repatriation includes all the legal, personal, moral, spiritual, ethical, intellectual, rational, and emotional turmoil involved in finding a professionally and personally acceptable response to all the human issues arising from the repatriation efforts . . ."

climate. Many other anthropologists are alone in this challenge because administrations avoid controversy.

It is important to stress that our support of science does not mean we disregard the tribal views of reality and spiritual values. In fact, we fully support repatriation to affiliated groups, and have repatriated, or prepared to repatriate, all historic and other identified remains. We are not disputing that disturbance of the dead is a significant issue. This is not an issue of spirit versus science. It has to do with truth and fact. Other tribes with potential affiliation also have rights under NAGPRA, whether they are currently aware of an ancient connection or not.

The impact of repatriation is far reaching, and current proposed changes to the federal law that enhance the capture of scientific information before repatriation, are fully in line with the intent of Congress when the law was originally passed. Accurate identification and classification of the dead is a basic legal principle that should apply to all undocumented deaths to ensure justice, and that includes archaeological analysis of prehistoric human remains.

The common heritage of humankind is at stake in the broader international implications of this issue, such as the efforts to prohibit studying Neanderthal remains in Israel. Furthermore, respecting the rights of Native Americans includes the countless contemporary and future descendants of the Native American people who respect and value scientific facts about prehistory. These Americans with Indian ancestry also have the right to knowledge about their origins, and many of them have been vocal on this subject. The impact of repatriation includes all the legal, personal, moral, spiritual, ethical, intellectual, rational, and emotional turmoil involved in finding a professionally and personally acceptable response to all the human issues arising from the repatriation efforts in America.

Righting the wrongs of our recent past is a noble goal, but there is more at stake than the feelings of Indian people for their generic ancestors represented by these burials. Other cultural and spiritual values are held equally dear by citizens of this world and we can all benefit from learning more about our common origins. These human remains are not just the physical remains of departed persons who deserve respectthey are precious and rare fragments of our human heritage that can provide the most direct understanding of our past. Repatriation of skeletal remains without discovering their underlying messages seems an insult to the wonder of creation that they even exist, and that we are capable, by the grace of our creator, of learning so much from them. ·

Amy Dansie is an anthropologist at the Nevada State Museum.

back to top of page


Previous pageTable of Contents Next Page