Battle of the bones

Western intellectuals, not Native peoples, are behind moves to repatriate human remains.

Josie Appleton

Topics Culture

Human bones, pieces of skin and bits of hair tucked away in museum display cases and vaults have become the subject of ferocious political battles.

Many of these human remains were collected in the nineteenth century, when Western colonial expansion was at its height and there was a lust for scientific enquiry. Today, there are demands that these bones be returned to indigenous groups for reburial.

Museums in Australia and the USA began repatriating human remains in their hundreds about a decade ago, a policy that was reinforced by pressure from those governments. It looks like the UK is about to follow them – in the next few weeks, a working group set up by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is expected to recommend the relaxation of restrictions that prevent UK museums from repatriating (1).

Why has repatriation become such an issue?

It often appears that the battle for the bones was launched by indigenous groups themselves. In the past, while white graves were deemed sacred, those of indigenous groups were often looted by collectors. Native peoples finally seem to be gaining the ability to determine the fate of their ancestors. Native representatives argue that their emotional and spiritual link to the bones outweighs the interests of science, and that repatriation means recognising some of the damage done to Native societies, and attempting to make amends.

But back in the 1980s, when repatriation became an issue in the USA and Australia, few tribes showed much interest in becoming involved. Anthropology professor Russell Thornton, who was working at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC when the museum first contacted tribes about repatriation, says that most Native groups did not respond because they were ‘generally focused on local issues’ (2).

More recently, museums have often had a hard job interesting Native communities. Barbara Isaac, from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University in Boston, claims that 80 of the 117 notices sent out to tribes about repatriating human remains in 1995 received no response – and the museum was only able to begin a consultation about repatriation with three of the 117 (3).

In his book Skull Wars, David Hurst Thomas describes how Smithsonian anthropologist Ted Carpenter travelled to Greenland to rebury the remains of four individuals from an Inuit group (4). Eventually, the pastor of the group agreed to rebury the remains (but apparently only after he had been pressured to do so by a Danish bishop). When Carpenter asked a member of the group what they felt about the repatriation service, they replied: ‘Embarrassment’.

‘The whole service was really for us’, concluded a bemused Carpenter. The Inuit were only really participating out of courtesy to the anthropologists. (Hurst Thomas notes that the Inuit reluctance may have had something to do with the fact that their religion attributes only evil properties to the dead.)

Far from being led by Native communities, the trend towards repatriation is driven by intellectuals on the cultural left, and endorsed by the key cultural and political institutions in mainstream Western society. It is a consequence of the decline of Enlightenment values within intellectual thought and the rise of relativism and mysticism within postmodern academia, and has had a practical impact upon governments and museums. If indigenous groups have come to identify with repatriation claims, it is mainly because they are working within a political terrain set up by intellectual trends generated elsewhere.

The interest in studying human remains has been motivated, not by a desire to desecrate the graves of Native communities, but by the imperative of scientific enquiry. Science views human remains as evidence, as dead matter that can be rationally interrogated to form theories about past patterns of migration, the effect of environment upon body form, or the relationship between different populations.

Knowledge gained through scientific investigation could once claim a solidity and universality lacked by other kinds of knowledge. At least in theory, any scientist, whatever their cultural background, should come to the same conclusion in the face of sufficient evidence.

But by the 1980s, as Allan Bloom outlined in his influential critique of the culture wars, The Closing of the American Mind, students and lecturers at US universities could agree on only one thing: ‘that truth is relative.’ (5) Many intellectuals decided that no view had any more claim to truth than any other. At best, Western science was derided as only one of many potential social constructs – at worst, it was seen as an oppressive and colonising enterprise, that locked ‘Other’ groups into positions of inferiority.

A recent book, The Dead and their Possessions, shows the importance of Western intellectuals in pushing the repatriation issue. Two essays in the book are by indigenous people – one recounts a boat journey from Hawaii to the Smithsonian to claim back the bones of Native Hawaiian ancestors; another talks about the way a repatriation has reinforced and invigorated an island’s traditional culture (6).

But the force of the arguments for sending the bones back comes from other contributors to the book. And these owe more to Foucault than they do to any traditional indigenous beliefs.

Cressida Fforde from the Institute of Archaeology at University College, London, for example, argues that the scientific study of human remains is a means of colonial domination. She sees knowledge as merely the assertion of power – groups assert themselves over other groups by defining, objectifying and categorising them. Fforde argues that the study of human remains constructs the identities of both the superior coloniser and the inferior native. She draws a direct link between colonial authorities and the scientists of today, arguing that scientists’ collection and study of remains ‘affirmed and authenticated their own group identity as the authority which produced knowledge about the past’ (7).

The archaeologist Fforde puts the boot into Western archaeology in a way that no Zuni would do. Her contribution decimates the scientific enterprise and casts doubt on archaeologists’ right ever to touch a human bone with a ruler or scalpel. The indigenous contributions to the book barely mention the issue of scientific practise.

Fforde’s piece contains another view that has become widespread among many intellectuals in recent years – that politics is a battle to define oneself and win respect for this self-definition. ‘Repatriation and reburial’, she says, ‘are loci for processes which both construct and reaffirm Aboriginality, empowering its participants by enabling them to assert, define (and thus take control over) their own identity’ (8).

It is not surprising that postmodern academia should generate such arguments, however convoluted and mystical they may be. What is more significant is that they have had a far wider purchase than simply among those in intellectual circles. Governments, and established cultural institutions of the USA, Australia and the UK, have taken this critique on board, and started looting their own collections as a result.

Both the American and the Australian governments have been active promoters of repatriation. In 1990, the US government signed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which gave all federally funded institutions five years to document all Native American human remains and associated funerary objects, and then to offer them repatriation. This has resulted in reburial of thousands of bones, and has placed a massive resource burden on institutions.

A number of Australian institutions have received government funding to assist them in the pursuit of claims for the repatriation of human remains and sacred objects – such as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DoCITA).

And museums have either resigned themselves to repatriation, or seized upon it as an opportunity.

Dr Michael Pickering, the repatriation programme director at the National Museum of Australia, argues that ‘repatriation should be seen by an institution as an asset in its own right’. He argues that the museum gains from returning human remains: ‘Rather than losing a collection element, the institution is value adding to its resource base. The goodwill and participation of an Aboriginal community is a resource’ (9).

Pickering says that the ‘success’ of a repatriation event should not be defined in terms of the physical return of materials, but ‘the levels of “empowerment” of relevant indigenous stakeholders, and the development of closer relations between the repatriators and the custodians’.

UK museum professionals hold similar views. John Jackson from the Natural History Museum in London told me that there is ‘no real resistance’ within the UK museum community to increasing the repatriation of human remains. In the late 1990s, Glasgow Museums brought about a high-profile repatriation of a Ghost Dance Shirt, taken off a body of a Sioux Indian after the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890. Then director Mark O’Neill claimed that the loss of the shirt was outweighed by the museum ‘bringing healing to a sad people’.

Repatriation claims, then, have had an impact – both upon government policy and the practice of museums. The ideas behind such claims chime with the broader contemporary intellectual climate, in which the principles of scientific enquiry and universal knowledge hold less sway and when multiculturalism is celebrated and relativism abounds. But there are other factors at play in the willingness of governments and museum professionals to accept, even promote, repatriation claims, which relate to the specific problems these institutions find themselves dealing with today.

So far as governments are concerned, repatriation strategies have become part of the way in which they attempt to connect with what they perceive as fragmented, divided societies. In the USA and Australia, the apparent failure to integrate indigenous populations had became a particular cause for concern by the 1980s, and with no new solutions to integration on the horizon, the issue became how best to build a relationship – any relationship – with these separate, impoverished groups of people came to the fore.

Repatriation, in this context, represented a symbolic reversal of conquest – a giving back of what had been taken, a recognition of the value of indigenous culture at the highest levels of government, and an attempt to create, not one national identity, but a new ‘pluricultural’ ideal.

Museums have had problems of their own. Throughout the 1980s, museums suffered from increasing doubt about their role as collectors, preservers and studiers of objects. Some museum professionals came to view their work as an activity that was both futile and elitist – repatriation became a way in which they could find a new role and relevance for themselves. Researching the provenance of remains, contacting Native groups and entering into dialogue…to some, this seemed to have more moral authority than studying the bones to further scientific understanding.

To this end, some archaeologists have become involved in projects such as ‘ethnocritical archaeology’, where they engage Native communities in a debate about the significance of remains. Larry Zimmerman, one archaeologist who has taken this approach, says that the aim is that ‘the archaeological past is negotiated’ (10). The point of studying remains, it seems, is less to establish what the evidence can tell us about human history, than to engage Native communities in dialogue.

Does any of this matter? In practice, the effect of repatriation claims upon archaeology has, to date, been less than was originally feared. There are still substantial collections of human remains in Australia and America. Some bones cannot be linked to present-day Native groups; some groups don’t want their ancestors’ remains returned, or are prepared to come to a deal that allows continued research. In other cases, remains have been returned because they were of little research value – the UK Royal College of Surgeons, for example, told me that they returned one of their skeletons to an aboriginal community because it was of little use to them.

But it is still the case that important collections have been reburied, meaning that the evidence that could have provided new insights in the archaeology of today and tomorrow has been lost forever.

For example, the Pecos collection, consisting of the remains of nearly 2000 ancestors, was returned in 1999 to the Pecos and Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico. This was the largest available skeletal population from a single community, and since it was dug up by the US archaeologist AV Kidder in the 1920s, had been studied by many physical anthropologists and had provided significant data about the influence of diet and disease over populations. Out of the 18,000 Native American skeletons in the Smithsonian’s collections, they have offered around 5000 up for repatriation (although only some 3300 have been returned). This loss is a sizeable proportion of the world’s largest collection of Native American remains.

If the UK follows suit in endorsing repatriation claims, large collections could be broken up and returned. The Natural History Museum, for example, has a broad collection of remains from all over the world, which are used extensively by scientists for comparative research – looking at questions such as the influence of climate over skeletal morphology.

The loss of knowledge about the human past is everyone’s loss. Archaeology has allowed us to peer back at the movement of bands of humans tens of thousands of years ago, as they picked their way to the New World more than 10,000 years ago. More exciting discoveries could be in store if we only asked the right questions and had the right tools to examine the evidence.

Some have sought to defend science by attacking ‘Native mysticism’ and ‘Indian essentialism’. They might do better to aim their fire at the intellectuals who started the battle of the bones in the first place.

Read on:

Burying the evidence, by Tiffany Jenkins

Kennewick Man: burying the truth about America’s past, by Norman Levitt

Who owns human remains?, by Tiffany Jenkins, on openDemocracy

spiked-issue: Museums and galleries

(1) The skeletons of colonialism may get a decent burial at last, Independent on Sunday, 10 November 2002

(2) Studying Native America: Problems and Prospects, Russell Thornton (ed), University of Wisconsin Press, 1998

(3) The Dead and Their Possessions: Repatriation in Principle, Policy and Practice, (eds) Cressida Fforde, Jane Hubert and Paul Turnbull, Routledge, 2002, p162

(4) Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity, David Hurst Thomas, Basic Books, 2000

(5) The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom, Simon and Schuster, 1987

(6) The Dead and Their Possessions: Repatriation in Principle, Policy and Practice, (eds) Cressida Fforde, Jane Hubert and Paul Turnbull, Routledge, 2002

(7) The Dead and Their Possessions: Repatriation in Principle, Policy and Practice, (eds) Cressida Fforde, Jane Hubert and Paul Turnbull, Routledge, 2002, p40

(8) The Dead and Their Possessions: Repatriation in Principle, Policy and Practice, (eds) Cressida Fforde, Jane Hubert and Paul Turnbull, Routledge, 2002, p38

(9) Repatriation, rhetoric and reality, Dr Michael Pickering, 2001

(10) The Dead and Their Possessions: Repatriation in Principle, Policy and Practice, (eds) Cressida Fforde, Jane Hubert and Paul Turnbull, Routledge, 2002, p95

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Topics Culture


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