The Treaty of NAGPRA and Religious Renewal
Madame Facilitator, Madame President, Board Members and Officers of Keepers of the Treasures Alaska, Madame Vice President of the Alaska Federation of Natives, Mr. President of the National Keepers of the Treasures, respected guests and participants, and my dear friends.
I am deeply honored to be invited to address a body that holds the potential to contribute to the further enhancement of Alaska Native cultures. These cultures were once thought to be on the road to extinction. Miraculously, they survived, but they continue to face never ending challenges to their integrity. Many of you here in this room played a crucial role in the defense and restoration of Alaska Native cultures. Through your continuing efforts and with your courage, together with a cadre of new individuals entering the cultural defense arena, Native cultures may regain their former strength and be restored to their past glories. As one who holds our cultures dearly and cherishes the knowledge and values of our ancestors that have served us for thousands of years, I express my deepest gratitude to you. I am certain that future generations of Alaska Native children will also sing their praise and thanks for your efforts and undaunting dedication on their behalf.
Today I speak, not in my capacity as a corporate director of Sealaska Corporation. Nor do I address you as a trustee of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Indians. Today this Tlingit woman, this Eagle and Thunderbird woman would like to speak to you as a Native person. I would like to speak to you as one who continues to value and adhere to our Tlingit beliefs and ways. I would like to address you as one who has suffered the indignation of having my mouth washed with soap for uttering Tlingit words and thoughts. I speak to you as one who has been ridiculed for my skin being brown and because I carried the odor of dry fish and seal grease on my body, as one who has been chastised because I refused to accept the Christian teachings. I would like to speak to you as one who has survived a witchcraft spell because I dared to bring our traditions into the open and to advocate for changes in our cultural practices. I would like to address you as one who believes that if our cultures are to survive and flourish, they must be compatible with our present circumstances and accessible to younger generations of Native people. I would like to speak to you as one who has travelled throughout Alaska and studied its diverse cultures. I would like to speak to you as one who has been privileged to receive the teachings of elders from Tlingit country in Southeast Alaska to the Inupiat country in the Arctic.
Today, I would also like to speak to you as an anthropologist. I realize that there are some among you, including both Native and non-Native, who may assert that these roles are incompatible. However, as one who has learned the ways of the white people and one who has studied science, I believe that we must take the knowledge from the discipline of anthropology and apply it as we initiate efforts to preserve and maintain our cultures. I accept the dictates of our early historic leaders who had the wisdom to know that we must take the knowledge and laws of the white man and use them to protect our land and culture. Furthermore, I am certain that tribes will need the knowledge of anthropology as we move to implement the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). I would like to devote a portion of my discussion to this topic. I must note to you that I gave this same message to anthropologists and museums people in a paper entitled the "Treaty of NAGPRA" to be published in the forthcoming Federal Archaeology newsletter. I had hoped to assure anthropologists and museum professionals not to be fearful and resist repatriation. Perhaps they may be convinced that through the implementation of NAGPRA, anthropological knowledge and theories could be expanded.
I would also like to devote a brief portion of my address to a discussion of "religious renewal." I know that much will be said and written by scholars and observers about this emerging concept. We can expect that some of the writings and observations may express skepticism, and that Native people will, more than likely, be accused of reinventing traditions. The phenomenon of "religious renewal" has the potential to have far-reaching implications. Religious renewal will undoubtedly yield untold social and cultural benefits, but at the same time, it has the potential to create unanticipated and undesirable consequences. We as Native people must attempt to understand its significance and be prepared to meet the challenges.
The assaults on Native cultures, including the removal of cultural and sacred objects, have been extensive and continuous; but who would have believed that they would survive the forces of one of the mightiest nations of this world? Who would have thought that our cultural values would persist in the face of governmental legislation and programs designed to eradicate tribal ways? Who would have believed that we would continue to sing the songs of our ancestors and dance upon the lands they bequeathed to us in the face of punishment for speaking the language of our grandparents? Who would have thought that our traditional spiritualism would prevail in the face of proselytizing forces that attempted to smother our ancient beliefs? Who would have believed that our ceremonies, although many lay dormant for years, would persevere without the subsistence foods to nourish those who had journeyed to the spiritual world. Who would have thought that our beliefs would persist without the physical objects necessary to practices the ceremonial rites.
That our cultures survived these forces of suppression, admittedly in altered form, is testimony to the value, goodness and strength of our ancient ways and beliefs. These cultures did not endure because of the benevolence of patrons. They persisted because of people like yourself who believe that our ways and ideologies are worthy. It was people like yourselves who continued to adhere and practice the old ways. These cultural warriors banded together to challenge the forces of cultural and religious imperialism. They sought to amend and to implement new govermnental legislation to protect our traditions. In a spirit of honesty and appreciation, we must also recognize that non-indian friends and allies shared our beliefs and burdens. The enactment of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act resulted from such alliances and contentions.
NAGPRA represents the final nail in the coffin of earlier assimilationist federal Indian policies and a dawning of a new era. Congress acknowledges the value of Indian cultures and affirms that certain tribal properties held in museums are essential to their cultural survival and integrity and mandates their return. This legislation, together with the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, represents a philosophical change, and an explicit acceptance of the validity and sanctity of Indian world views and religions. NAGPRA is an acknowledgement of Indian ideologies that affirm that Indian people have both a tangible and spiritual relationship to objects. It inherently accepts Indian beliefs that sacred and cultural objects themselves symbolize the social relations among tribal members and the spiritual bonds between present day Indian and their ancestors. It is a recognition that present day Indians have a concrete link to future generations of Indians through our sacred and cultural objects, and that these symbols are necessary for our cultural survival. NAGPRA, indeed, represents a great victory for Indian people. However, as Indian people celebrate this momentous occasion, they are also beginning to gain an appreciation of the complexity of the innumerable tasks and financial costs that will be required as they move to reclaim their heritage. Choosing to implement NAGPRA places a tremendous burden and responsibility on tribes.
Ironically, NAGPRA also brings the opportunity for Indians and anthropologists to reconcile their differences or to redraw the battle lines. We are well aware that Native children have grown up playing "Cowboys and Indians." We must admit that even we as youngsters, as well as our children, wanted to be the cowboys. This was never the case for anthropologists. Indians have never wanted to be anthropologists. Within the entire United States, fewer than 70 Indians are practicing anthropologists.
The body of knowledge drawn from both anthropology and Indian people will play a central role in the repatriation process. If a cooperative stance is adopted, both Indians and anthropology, and as a consequence the general public, will benefit. If an adversarial position is assumed, it could conceivably pit 500 museums and institutions against Indian tribes. We could expect a long drawn-out battle in which both sides would suffer.
NAGPRA mandates a legislative resolution to the competing philosophical positions between Indians and museums. Museums and scientists have argued that human remains and cultural objects have scientific and educational value, and therefore should be preserved. Indians, on the other hand, contend that the appropriation of the human remains of their ancestors violates their sanctity and the civil rights of living Indians. They maintain that the alienation of their cultural objects further undermines their cultural integrity and survival. In this battle, Congress ruled on the side of the Indians. However, Congress did not carte blanche mandate the return of human remains and associated funerary objects, unassociated funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony held by museums and federal agencies. Instead, Indians and Native Hawaiians are required to substantiate their claims before they can reclaim ancestors and their cultural properties. It is this requirement that will undoubtedly bring Indian and anthropologists into conflicts or collaborative relationships.
Stated simply, the basic objectives of anthropology are to obtain, record and transmit cultural knowledge. A general assumption is that anthropologists require access to cultural material in order to meet these goals. NAGPRA challenges this supposition, but offers new alternatives. Rather than lamenting the loss of Indian objects, anthropologists could view repatriation as presenting new opportunities to acquire further knowledge and to enhance the discipline of anthropology. Collaborative research relationships between anthropologists and Indians can be usefully established. Additional knowledge and greater insights into Native American societies might also be gained. The discipline of anthropology has evolved through a succession of intellectual changes and theoretical approaches. The repatriation process provides yet another approach and a valuable opportunity to acquire further bodies of knowledge.
NAGPRA requires that Indian people provide substantial amounts of information to validate their claims. Undoubtedly, the existing anthropological literature will be consulted. In some instances, Indians will disagree with the literature and take steps to correct it. Indians are likely to provide additional information that has not yet been documented. Some Indian groups have been favorites of anthropologists, and much has been written on these tribes. Other tribes have been studied less extensively. These tribes will, of necessity, require additional research to pursue their repatriation claims. The interpretations will be written from the perspective of the claiming tribe, how they view the world, and their perception of the significance of objects in religious and ceremonial rites. While some might raise the question of scientific objectivity, no one will deny that this perspective has often been lacking in the literature. These interpretations are bound to add new insights which will challenge earlier assumptions.
Museums and institutions that hold objects subject to NAGPRA have the responsibility of reviewing and assessing repatriation requests and supporting evidence. They have an obligation o ensure that they comply with the full mandate of NAGPRA. This responsibility entails a thorough review of a tribe's claim and accompanying evidence. It can be assumed that museums and other institutions will vary in how vigorously they support or resist repatriation claims. Some museums have already demonstrated a cooperative and collaborative approach, while others have given a less than enthusiastic response. It is however, in the best interest of tribes that museums initiate a careful review process to ensure that objects are returned to the legitimate owners. Museums are expected to utilize anthropologists and other experts and to draw from the body of scholarly and anthropological literature to assess repatriation claims.
Traditional leaders are assumed to have a broad understanding and knowledge of their religious and cultural practices, and they may be able to develop clear and cogent claims to repatriate their objects. However, tribes should also be familiar with the scholarly material and information that museums will use to evaluate repatriation claims. Tribes cannot merely identify and claim an item as a funerary object, a sacred object, or as an objected of cultural patrimony and expect that it will be returned. The ultimate burden of proof rests with tribal claimants.
Some tribes have developed collaborative relationships with anthropologists or other scholars who are recognized experts of their culture and history who may be able to assist with this process. While the law is clear that tribes have the authority to define sacredness, they ill need to present their evidence to convince the museum officials who will be assessing repatriation requests.
A number of tribes may see the value of employing academic experts to work with their traditional scholars to support their claims. Others may be resistant to utilizing scholarly experts. Whatever the tribe decides, its claims should be developed with the certainty that the objects qualify to be repatriated and with supporting documentation to meet the terms of NAGPRA in order to be successful. They must be assured that their requests meet the review and assessment standards of museums officials or judicial institutions should a legal resolution be necessary.
Indians and museums should be forewarned that the requirement to substantiate "Rights of Possession," can pit museums directly against Indians, and anthropologists against anthropologists. Indians must present evidence which would support a finding that the federal agency or museum did not have the right to possess the item or items in question. Museums, on the other hand, must prove that they do have these rights. It is expected that museums will initiate a serious review of repatriation requests. However, they could also choose to utilize their resources to take a vigorous stance in support of their own "Right of Possession", thus challenging Indian claims. It is this requirement that warrants meaningful consultation if conflict is to be avoided.
Repatriation studies and analysis can greatly expand anthropological knowledge in such areas as religion, law, social organization, and social and cultural change. The study of material culture will also be greatly enhanced. Anthropologists traditionally begin their research with an analysis of a specific social or cultural phenomenon. With the exception of museum anthropologists, material culture is generally secondary or peripheral to anthropological research. The cumulative and comparative knowledge gained from a focus on the function of sacred objects within a cultural setting, and how these objects are held or owned by their possessors, can only expand anthropological knowledge. Indians, on the other hand, can take this same body of information to formulate policies necessary to protect their societies or to influence public policies that have great impacts on cultural viability.
Museums are undoubtedly developing their procedures to act on repatriation requests. With limited resources to implement NAGPRA, Indian tribes and museums may wish to consider the adoption of a collaborative approach that satisfies the needs of both museums and Indian societies. Museum and anthropological associations may wish to sponsor meetings or consultations with Indian tribes to discuss ways in which to encourage and facilitate collaborative efforts. The full implementation of NAGPRA will undoubtedly prove beneficial to Indian people. However, it also has the potential to greatly enhance anthropological knowledge, to enrich our understanding of Native American cultures, and to improve elationship between the Indians and anthropologists. A new era of close cooperation and fruitful understanding could lie just ahead.
In closing, I would like to bring to your attention one aspect of NAGPRA identified as "religious renewal." As you may recall, tribes must prove that sacred objects are needed for the practice of traditional religions or the renewal of religious ceremonies. They must demonstrate the object's specific use and function in ongoing religious rites or prove that the object is necessary to renew ceremonies that are part of traditional religions. They must also prove that they are needed by religious leaders and present-day adherents.
I have thought much about this aspect of NAGPRA, but sadly I must report that I have come to no conclusion. Intuitively, I know that this issue poses serious implications for Native cultures. It is a profound question which warrants considerable thought and discussion among Indian people.
We know that the removal of sacred objects had devastating consequences on Indian cultures and religions. Most present-day communities are dramatically different from the societies from which the sacred objects were originally expropriated. Some tribes are more fortunate than others, and their traditional practices and religious rites persist fairly unaltered. These tribes may be able to reintegrate their objects back into their societies with little difficulty. However, other tribes were traumatized by the loss of their sacred objects, and they were unable to continue performing their religious rites and ceremonial obligations. The reintegration of objects into these societies and the renewal of cultural and religious rites can be complex and perhaps even painful. These tribes may have an additional burden: they may have to address potential conflicts generated among those who have assimilated western views and ways or who may have accepted the Christian faith and be adverse to the renewal of traditional religious practices. For example, witness the religious fervor in one of the Southeast Alaska communities last year that led to the burning of cultural objects and symbols. Elders and religious leaders will have the enormous task of reconciling these differences and tensions among their tribal members. They will be faced with the enormous task of educating their young and tribal members who do not understand the ancient religions and the significance of sacred objects. We are also aware that many of our religious practices were altered to disguise their original meanings in order to make them acceptable to prevailing Christian beliefs. For example, in Southeast Alaska, Tlingit people traditionally brought foods in large potlatch bowls to the mortuary rites. They then burned the food to transport it to the spiritual world to feed deceased relatives. With the advent of Christianity, this belief persisted, but many Tlingit transformed the traditional practice, and instead distributed food from large porcelain bowls to their guests to feed the dead. As a consequence, many of the potlatch bowls ended up in museum collections. The question I pose is how are we as Tlingit people -- and how are we as Native People -- now to address this issue of religious renewal.
Anthropologists today generally accept the constructivist view that cultures change and adapt to their new circumstances. What is important to us as Indian people is to understand that the meaning of sacred objects arises not from the objects themselves, but from the meanings that we as Indian people ascribe to the objects. We can apply these meanings as we understand them to the practices we perform in our ceremonial rites. Cultures change and are reinvented generation to generation.
Indian people have no historical model on which to draw to initiate the repatriation process and to reintegrate sacred and cultural objects back into their societies. Their decisions, strategies and planning must include, not only the actual procedures to reclaim their cultural properties, but the ceremonies that may be necessary to reintegrate the objects back into their society.
NAGPRA indeed offers many opportunities, but it also means that we as Indian people will face many challenges. Collectively, we as Native People can make repatriation beneficial for our people. CoIlaboratively, as Native People and anthropologists and museum professionals, we can serve the greater public and advance general knowledge. Let us sign the Treaty of NAGPRA. Let us move forward together.