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Return of Native American human remains and artifacts focus of 25th anniversary of federal law

Return of Native American human remains and artifacts focus of 25th anniversary of federal law

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

This autumn marks the 25th anniversary of “probably the most powerful Native American human rights law that has ever been passed in the United States,” according to Kathleen Fine-Dare, professor of Anthropology and Gender & Women’s Studies at Fort Lewis College.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, enacted by Congress in 1990, requires the return of Native American property held in museum facilities to tribes.

Under NAGPRA, any institution that has received federal funding must provide a list of its holdings, including human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. These institutions, including FLC, then consult with representatives of tribes that may be culturally affiliated to the objects. Holdings are then published in the Federal Register so that repatriation requests may be made.

Several events will mark the anniversary of the law, such as the 80th Colorado Archaeological Society Annual Conference, hosted at FLC from October 9-11, and "NAGPRA Turns 25," which includes two free talks sponsored by the Native American Center, the Four Corners Lecture Series, the Office of the FLC President, and the FLC Lifelong Learning Series. Darrell “Curly” Youpee, the preservation officer and museum director for the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes, will speak about his personal experiences on October 21, in the Center of Southwest Studies Lyceum. Dr. Joe Watkins (Choctaw), the tribal anthropology liaison at the National Park Service in Washington, will speak the following day, October 22, in 130 Noble Hall. A public reception for both speakers will follow Youpee’s talk.

NAGPRA carries immense spiritual and cultural significance for Native American nations. “These bones are their relatives, for whom they mourn,” says Fine-Dare. “Many believe that their ancestors have to be reburied, to achieve not only justice but spiritual completion.” The specific impacts vary between nations, however. “It depends on which nation, which tribal group, you’re consulting with,” she says, “because they have different opinions, histories, and cultural frameworks.”

On October 10, Fine-Dare will speak at the CAS conference about the opportunities and responsibilities of NAGPRA and how it is changing our culture. “It’s a metaphor in a lot of ways for Native American relationships with the United States government and the whole population,” she says.

Fine-Dare has been one of the College’s resident experts on repatriation ever since the law rerouted her career. “I was hired specifically to teach South American anthropology,” she recalls. “When I was the department chair the notice came through regarding the new repatriation law. I had to hustle. I may be an Andeanist, but I work in Native North American territory, and I have an ongoing obligation to comply with this law. They are my hosts.”

As a cultural anthropologist, Fine-Dare had never before worked with human remains until the passage of NAGPRA. That was the realm of biological anthropologists. But when working with NAGPRA, she could not opt out of discussions by saying that archaeology and biological anthropology weren’t her specialties.

It was such an eye-opening challenge that Fine-Dare wrote a book about her experiences with NAGPRA and repatriation at FLC. She is now modifying the book, titled Grave Injustice, for a second edition.

NAGPRA also opens up challenges and possibilities in the classroom. Fine-Dare taught an Honors course focused on NAGPRA last year, and her museum and heritage class next spring will incorporate repatriation issues both internationally and within the United States. Fine-Dare is not the only instructor utilizing NAGPRA in the classroom. Other offerings include courses in forensic studies, Native American and Indigenous Studies, anthropological ethics, and archaeological field instruction.

For students, “NAGPRA is a really good case study,” she says. “The law requires that you consider several lines of evidence. Those are not just biological or archaeological, but involve oral history, linguistics, geography, kinship, and ethnographic study.”

The law therefore provides important routes for interdisciplinary collaboration. “You have to involve scientists in the analysis of human remains; you have to involve experts who study Native American law, social systems, histories, and cultures; and you have to involve museum specialists, geographers, and archaeologists to manage this whole thing,” says Fine-Dare. “Most importantly, you have to centrally involve Native Americans in this work.”

By incorporating each of these disciplines, the study of NAGPRA in the classroom trains FLC students in the methods they need to get jobs as cultural resource specialists. The interdisciplinary training also aids students in incorporating other worldviews and cultural perspectives into cultural resource management and heritage work.

Fine-Dare sees these ongoing dialogues extending well beyond the law itself. She says, “The conversation about NAGPRA was finally a door, a space opened up for people to come together and talk about a whole lot of issues that formerly had been restricted.”

“Objects evoke feeling in us,” she observes. "That is the greatest common ground between tribal representatives, anthropologists, scientists, and students. What do we have in common?” she asks. “We value and respect these human remains.”

Fine-Dare and her students are still developing other events throughout the academic year to commemorate NAGPRA’s milestone anniversary and especially its successes. “What’s most rewarding is feeling like I’m making even the tiniest contribution to realizing justice for Native people in the United States,” she says. “I’m just thrilled at every little accomplishment."

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