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Repatriation: The Right Thing to Do, Essay Example

Pages: 3

Words: 836

Essay

The excavation and study of human remains has long been a significant component of archaeological activity. Archaeologists do not just study human remains, of course; there are an endless variety of artifacts that may prove useful for researchers attempting to discover more information about past human activity. Pottery, tools, coins, and countless other remnants of past civilizations can be useful and informative for researchers. When items of value are discovered –such as coins or other forms of precious metal- there can be legal battles over who has the rights to keep these items. Where human skeletal remains are concerned, the battles over who has the right to decide what to do with them are much more serious. For decades Native Americans have battled with archaeologists over the use of human remains for research. For many archaeologists, skeletal remains are priceless sources of information, and must be preserved and maintained for research purposes. For many Native Americans, such remains are equally priceless, but in a different way. Those who oppose the use of these remains by archaeologists believe such remains should be repatriated to the tribes people to whom the remains are connected, so that they can be given proper burials. James Riding In, a Pawnee Indian, and Clement W. Meighan , an archaeologist, each made the case for their side of the argument. After considering both views, it is difficult to argue with the contention made by James Riding In that the wishes of the families of the deceased Indians in question –distant though those familial connections may be- trumps the argument made by researchers, regardless of what scientific value may be gained by studying the skeletal remains.

James Riding In recounts his experience fighting for the repatriation of these remains, explains how he came to be a leading voice in the fight, and makes a solid case for his views. Riding In’s association with the movement dates back to the 1960s and 1970s and his time as a student at UCLA, when conversations about national identity among Native Americans were prevalent and discussions about the battle over Indian remains were growing louder. Riding In recalls a personal encounter with an archaeologist at a party, and further recalls being personally offended by the man’s arrogance. In the larger sense, Riding In recognized that “archeologists were functioning on a different metaphysical and intellectual plane” than were Riding In and his fellow Native Americans.

Simply put, Riding In sees the refusal to repatriate the remains, and the use of such remains for research, as sacrilege. Despite laws passed by Congress, notes Riding In, museums such as the Smithsonian institution have stymied efforts by Pawnee Indians and representatives of other tribes to reclaim skeletal remains; museum staffers often claim that the remains cannot be positively identified, a claim Riding In vehemently disputes. As Riding In sees it, the refusal to comply with the laws and the failure to repatriate the remains of Native Americans is simply more evidence of the centuries of oppression and mistreatment of Native Americans at the hands of White people and other non-native Americans.

The argument that these remains represent a trove of scientific evidence and information is not disputable. In countering Riding In’s argument, Clement W. Meighan explains that there is more to the archaeologist’s side of the story. In many cases claims for repatriation and reburial call not just for human remains, but for all items found at an excavation site. This argument is often made on the basis that the items are “ceremonial” in nature, and were therefore part of the burial process for the remains at the time of death. Meighan argues that if repatriation laws are to be enforced in such cases, they would defy the Constitutional prohibition on “respecting an establishment of religion.” There is no question that the issue is a complicated one and that the range of legalities applicable to this subject is beyond the scope of a brief discussion.

Archaeologists, museums, and researchers have an ethical obligation to expand the scope of their understanding, and to stand their ground when calls for repatriation overreach the mark and lay claim to artifacts that are not or should not be considered as part of the repatriation process. It is clear that compromise is needed on both sides, and it is also clear that these arguments and legal battles will continue for years to come. At the core of the argument, however, aside from consideration of bits of pottery or other “ceremonial” items, are the remains of actual human beings. The battle of ceremonial items can and should continue until some conclusion is reached; where the remains of human beings are concerned, however, there is nothing left to argue. These remains should be returned to the families from which they came so they can be given a proper, respectful burial, a right that should be afforded to all human beings.

References

Meighan, Clement W. from “Some scholar’s views on reburial.” American Antiqutiy. October 1992.

Riding In, James. Repatriation; a Pawnee’s perspective. American Indian Quarterly. Spring 1996.

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