Message #388:
From: AzTeC SW Archaeology SIG
To:   "'Matthias Giessler'" 
Subject: NAGPRA and the Demon-Haunted World
Date: Fri, 29 Nov 96 15:58:00 MST
Encoding: 111 TEXT

[  The following article was clipped from the SAA Bulletin for those without 
web browsers and those with text-only access to the Internet -- SASIG Ed. ]

SAA Bulletin Volume 14 Number 5 November 1996
Letters to the Editor
NAGPRA and the Demon-Haunted World

All origin myths are equally absurd, but some are more politically correct 
than others.

Recent articles on NAGPRA, in the SAA Bulletin, American Antiquity, the 
Anthropology Newsletter, Science, and on the wire services, warrant comment 
not only because of their implications for the future of archaeology as a 
"science-like" endeavor, but also because of what they say about the status 
of western science in general and the role that reasoned inquiry plays in 
western society. Although many readers might be inclined to dismiss these 
articles as irrelevant to their particular concerns, it seems clear that the 
worldview of western science is under serious and sustained assault and that 
there is a danger that "science-like" views of reality will perish in the 
face of a multipronged attack in which mysticism, religious fundamentalism, 
creationism, and belief in the paranormal combine with post-modernist 
academics to attack the critical realism and mitigated objectivity that are 
the central epistemological biases of the scientific worldview. The 
political climate has also become increasingly hostile in recent years as 
politicians, who generally misunderstand what science "is" or "does," have 
pandered to the often-vocal concerns of the various anti-science 
constituencies. The result is a loss of public confidence in the ability of 
science to resolve significant problems, an increase in the popularity of 
the various pseudo- or antiscientific worldviews, and a decline in the 
perceived credibility of rational thought as a method of inquiry about the 
nature of the world and the place of humans in it.

Most recent articles on NAGPRA are concerned with the repatriation to Native 
American claimants of human bones and artifacts recovered from 
government-sponsored archaeological excavations on public lands. These 
remains, as well as those found elsewhere in the world (e.g., in Israel and 
Australia), are perceived by western science to pertain to a generalized 
human past as part of a universal heritage not circumscribed by ethnic or 
cultural boundaries. However, legislation enacted in recent years has given 
the cultural traditions and religious beliefs of minorities greater weight 
under the law than the universalistic perspective that underlies scientific 
inquiry. Motivated by political expediency and the kind of anti-science 
sentiment alluded to above, the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and 
Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) requires the consultation in archaeological 
excavation of very broadly defined Native American constituencies and 
mandates the repatriation and reburial, if so desired by native claimants, 
of all human remains and artifacts recovered from archaeological sites, 
including those not affiliated with any known or recognized Native American 

NAGPRA is an unmitigated disaster for archaeologists, bioarchaeologists, and 
other physical anthropologists concerned with the study of human skeletal 
remains. This is because NAGPRA puts ethnicity and religious belief on an 
equal footing with science and thus provides a mandate for claims of 
affiliation by virtually any interested party. As is true of any ethnic or 
racial category, however, "Native Americanness" has only a political 
definition. Anthropologists acknowledge the statistical, clinal character of 
race (or, as we prefer to call it, subspecific variation); the government 
does not. State legislatures, which have often gone far beyond NAGPRA in 
their zeal to be politically correct, do not want to be bothered with such 
subtleties (after all, anthropologists are an even weaker political 
constituency than Native Americans), with the result that claims for the 
repatriation of human remains and "objects of cultural patrimony" can be 
extended to include just about anything identified as "affiliated" by a 
claimant. The result is that the process becomes entirely political, with 
western science, represented by archaeology, the inevitable loser.

Archaeology is admittedly a "small science," only weakly developed 
conceptually and characterized by few of the powerful law-like 
generalizations that underlie the spectacular, recent progress of 
mainstream, experimental "big science" disciplines like physics. Despite its 
many shortcomings, however, archaeology in the United States has always been 
a "science-like" endeavor in the sense that it subscribes to the same 
collection of materialist biases and assumptions that underlie all of 
western science. Moreover, its achievements have been substantial. It is 
simply a fact that knowledge of most pre-contact aboriginal cultures of the 
New World would have vanished without a trace were it not for archaeology 
(and the occasional presence of a western observer to record information 
about them). We are all the losers if, for reasons of political expediency, 
Native Americans rebury their past. One of the many ironies in the situation 
provoked by NAGPRA is that many Native American groups who favor the 
preservation of archaeological and skeletal collections are being co-opted 
by the actions of small, but vocal, activist minorities in cahoots with 
ignorant legislators and federal bureaucrats all too willing to sell the 
profession down the pike for the sake of short-term political gains.

NAGPRA, and similar legislation elsewhere, strikes at the very core of a 
"science-like" archaeology. Political considerations take precedence over 
disinterested evaluation of knowledge claims about the human past, with 
tragic and irreversible results. From the perspective of American 
archaeology, western science is not merely an optional or alternative "kind" 
of science -- it is the only "science" there is. NAGPRA uses politics to 
elevate cultural tradition and religious belief to the level of science as a 
paradigm for reality. A direct consequence of the national paroxysm of guilt 
surrounding the quincentenary, NAGPRA is bad law. It is in the interests of 
Native Americans and Anglo Americans alike that it be repealed. With all of 
its warts, western science is the most satisfactory paradigm for describing 
and explaining the experiential world that humans have ever developed. If 
archaeology turns its back on science and its materialist foundations, it 
will sacrifice whatever credibility it has acquired as an intellectual 
endeavor over the century or so of its existence.

G. A. Clark
Arizona State University