Indigenous communities are still fighting for the return of their ancestors

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“Colonization was assimilation and genocide. We have been withdrawn from our homelands, or our homelands have shrunk. We just had to leave everything behind and take whatever was on our back and walk away without being able to come back ”- Shannon O’Loughlin (Choctaw), Executive Director of the Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA)

The displacement of indigenous peoples over the centuries not only dispossessed them of their lands and goods, but also made the transmission of traditions and artefacts more difficult and made it more difficult to find their ancestors. Unsurprisingly, Indigenous peoples want their artifacts and ancestors back.

In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act with the intention of starting to right this wrong. It provided for a process for the return of Indigenous human remains, funeral and sacred objects, and cultural heritage objects to federally recognized tribes and Hawaiian Indigenous and Alaska Native organizations. While this law was a step in the right direction, it should have been the bare minimum in the repatriation of ancestral remains and artefacts. It has been more than 30 years since the law was passed and many Aboriginals are still struggling to get their ancestors back.

One problem is that some academics are unwilling to make these legitimate returns. This year at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archeology, Elizabeth Weiss, professor of physical anthropology, argued vs repatriation laws, claiming that it embraces creationism and gives “control of research to contemporary Indian communities.” The subtext of this argument suggests that indigenous peoples are somewhat anti-science and completely unaware that there are indigenous archaeologists. This implies that indigenous peoples cannot share their story and that colonizers should tell their story without their consent.

In recent years, tribal nations have learned that some institutions were not even aware of the artifacts they own. As part of NAGPRA, institutions are required to catalog indigenous artefacts and remains they own, but this had not been done in the past. Archeology collection in Jackson, Mississippi, Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and Harvard Peabody Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to name a few. The National Parks Service is monitoring the inventory of NAGPRA human remains and estimates that as of September 30, 2020, 199 333 the bodies were in the system and only about 40%, or 83,076 bodies, had been returned at that time. Since many institutions don’t know what they have, the full numbers are probably much higher.

Other problems exist within NAGPRA itself. The law only applies to federal lands and has only been interpreted to support federally recognized tribes in this process. Tribes not recognized at the federal level must submit applications under a different provision of NAGPRA for repatriation, but this provision only applies to ancestral human remains and does not guarantee the return of associated funerary objects. It is important to note that the interpretation of this law could include tribes not recognized at the federal level, but this is rarely the case. Some tribal nations are working together to facilitate this process.

the Alliance for the Cultural Preservation and Repatriation of the Anishinaabek of Michigan (MACPRA) is a combination of Federally Recognized Tribes and Michigan State Tribes who strive to give a voice to all tribes in the repatriation process and to keep State Tribes informed of the process of repatriation. NAGPRA deposit. AAIA program director Colleen Medicine (Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians) said these coalition efforts have brought the different tribes closer together not only within the state, but also between the tribes of the Chippewa Indians. United States and Canada. “We facilitated repatriations here in the United States and then brought ancestors to them across the river. [in Canada] because they have no position here to do it, ”Medicine said.

Unfortunately, even during the repatriation process, museums and federal institutions can determine which artifacts have a “cultural relationship” with a specific tribe. If they do not establish this relationship, they will label the remains or artifacts as “culturally unidentifiable”. Shannon O’Loughlin, executive director of the Association of American Indian Affairs, pointed out how problematic it is to even name an unidentifiable ancestor when it is “obviously identifiable by indigenous nations, whether the United States has recognized this nation or not ”.

In the case of the Harvard Peabody Museum, the Association accused the museum for breaking NAGPRA laws and resisting the repatriation process. “Their resistance methodology was to document it with their lawyers. So they invested a lot of money and a lot of time in “let’s establish the evidence against tribal affiliation”. So if [Peabody] documents the evidence with so much material, whether true or theories or hypotheses, the tribes will not be able to prove their burden or what they think is the burden of the tribe to prove affiliation, ”a O’Loughlin said. Peabody Museum Director Jane Pickering released a apologies earlier this year to the Association and pledged to “prioritize the urgent work of understanding and illuminating our history and starting to make amends.”

Thirty years after the adoption of NAGPRA, tribal nations are still fighting for their rights under an already established law. NAGPRA was meant to be a first step; however, he is still violated today. O’Loughlin details the emotional burden this process has on Indigenous peoples. “When the natives enter these institutions, click on eBay or watch PBS Antiques Roadshow, they see that their tribal artifacts are referred to as commodities and not as things of life supposed to help maintain health, safety and welfare. to be. of their nation. It is an ongoing emotional and spiritual evil that the tribes face, ”she said.

By 2030, Medicine and O’Loughlin hope the landscape will be different. Medicine wants “to see repatriation include language and ceremony and other things that were also taken without consent.”

“We are trying to create a world where diverse Native American cultures and values ​​are experienced, protected and respected,” O’Loughlin said. “What I hope to see, and I don’t know if we’ll get there in 10 years, is a complete change in the way we view Native American objects and property. It’s not good to have these things, but it’s good to watch contemporary Native American artists and buy the things that are meant to be shared. [It’s okay] be involved in places and with people who are able to share certain things about the culture and religion of Native America, and respect when these things are not open to the public.

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