Among many North American Indian tribes, treatment of the dead has traditionally been a matter of great concern. Some modern-day Native Americans have expressed that ancestral graves should not be disturbed or, if that cannot be prevented, then any remains and artifacts recovered should be reburied with ceremony.
However, it was not until the 1970s that this issue became a nationwide concern. By then, public attitudes in the United States had become more favorable toward both Native American interests and religious values. Passage of the Native American Religious Freedom Act of 1978 was a reflection of this change in public attitude, as well as a result of the newly developed political awareness and organization of Native American activist groups.
In 1990, the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was signed into federal law. In addition to applying penalties for the trafficking of illegally obtained Native American human remains and cultural items, the law mandated that all federally-funded institutions (museums, universities, etc.) are required to repatriate or "give back" their Native American collections to tribes who claim cultural or religious ownership over those materials. These and other recently adopted state laws have sparked a heated controversy among scientists and Native American groups.
For archaeologists, physical anthropologists, and other scholars who study humankind's past, graves have provided a very important source of knowledge about past cultures. This has been particularly true in the reconstruction of prehistoric North American cultures whose peoples left no written history but who buried their dead surrounded with material goods of the time. Repatriation of this material will prevent any further studies from being conducted in the future.
Although many researchers support repatriation of historic material that can be directly linked to living tribal descendants, others have stated that it is not possible to make such determinations on very ancient materials that date to before the pyramids of Egypt. Another argument is that ongoing medical studies of diseases found in the bones of ancient remains could lead to breakthroughs in treatments to help the living.
Archaeologists have expressed that museum materials are part of the heritage of the nation, and that these new laws fail to take into consideration the many complex factors that separate ancient human remains from modern Native American cultures.
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T. A. Freeman
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