Human Bodies Vs. Data: Doing the Right Thing With Native Remains

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Indiana University this summer repatriated human remains and funerary objects to the Native Village of Barrow Iñupiat Traditional Government in Alaska. Above, a whaling boat is seen on the frozen Arctic Ocean near Barrow in June 2006. Daisuke Wakabayashi/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Indian Country Today Media Network website.

This summer, Indiana University repatriated human remains and funerary objects from the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, which advertises that its “single largest collection was made at Point Barrow, Alaska in the 1930s, documenting the lives of Inupiaq Eskimo groups.” The first step was to contact the Native Village of Barrow Iñupiat Traditional Government, inform them, and get instructions. Not all indigenous people want their ancestors returned, but the Alaska Natives did want their ancestors to come home.

IU did not just repatriate the items. IU’s coordinator for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), Dr. Jayne-Leigh Thomas, and another anthropologist, Dr. April Sievert, traveled 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle to do so. After months of back and forth messages, Thomas and Village of Barrow NAGPRA Coordinator Flossie Mongoyak felt like they knew each other, and Mongoyak suggested that they make the journey when they could attend the Nalukataq, the annual whaling festival.

There was a catch that complicated the buying of airline tickets. The timing of the Nalukataq is set by the whales, not by humans. Luckily, the whales do come in during the summer, when it’s possible to dig a grave in Alaska. While “waiting for the whales to come in,” the anthropologists wanted to follow the custom of bringing a gift for the hosts of a party, but finding something appropriate and doable required consultation. The gift item decided upon was oranges, which are easy enough to come by in Bloomington, Indiana, but incredibly expensive in Barrow, Alaska.

Instead of shipping the oranges by airfreight—something that had proved unreliable when shipment of a non-food item did a circuit of the Northwestern U.S. and returned to Bloomington months later—the anthropologists brought a tub of oranges as part of their luggage.

Human Bodies Vs. Data

Indians and anthropologists can get along in an atmosphere of mutual respect. So I always believed and tried to assume, though I can’t deny I’ve had some nasty battles when working on NAGPRA issues for the Texas Indian Bar Association over the remains of dead Indians that I persist in understanding as the remains of dead humans, something more than scientific data.

NAGPRA was a heavy political lift over many years. Tim McKeown’s book, In the Smaller Scope of Conscience, is an excellent blow-by-blow of the legislative fight that resulted in NAGPRA, but that battle was preceded by many public battles over the status of Indian remains and grave goods. By the time NAGPRA became law in 1990, it was fair to ask what was to become of the relationship between the academic discipline of anthropology and American Indians?

There has always been a tendency on the rez to make fun of cultural anthropologists in a friendly way, but physical anthropologists were stirring up genuine anger. With a foot in both worlds, I made the remark on several campuses that “there are more dead Indians here as data than there are live Indians as students.” Often, that was literally true, and the bad feelings ran deep.

NAGPRA finally passed, but the pace of rulemaking and other implementation issues was glacial. Part of the delay was the sheer size of the task, but part of it was hostility left over from those legislative battles.

Scientists were still feeling the threat to what they saw as invaluable databases and Indians were asking how could the scientists testify at legislative hearings that what they had was priceless and then not complete their NAGPRA inventories because they claimed they didn’t know what they had? And if the study of the grave contents was so important, why had it not been going on all these years?

When I was a professor at Indiana University on the Bloomington campus, I thought NAGPRA compliance was less than enthusiastic. I had no doubt IU would comply if served with a tribal demand, but without detailed inventories and consultations, tribes were not in a position to know where their dead had been taken.

Now, the NAGPRA show at IU seems to be getting on the road. A newsletter from the First Nations Educational and Cultural Center informed me that IU solicited a grant from the National Science Foundation to study the teaching and learning of the repatriation process. Even more important, IU now has an individual tasked to implement NAGPRA. The NAGPRA work while I was on campus was extra duty for people who were not hired for NAGPRA work and had other things to do. Their enthusiasm was spotty at best.

Dr. Jayne-Leigh Thomas was hired in 2013 for the purpose of coming into compliance with the spirit as well as the letter of NAGPRA. Dr. Thomas showed the new attitude when she told ICTMN, “NAGPRA takes commitment. If you aren’t fully committed to the process, it won’t work.” Since being hired at IU, she has consulted with over 50 tribes, most of them with personal visits. That would be about a tenth of all federally recognized tribes, and she is not finished.

In another very practical move, IU acquired an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer to determine when items slated for repatriation have been treated with dangerous chemicals, preservatives or pesticides. Indians may find it shocking that no records were kept of such treatments, but making it right begins with finding out the truth. To repatriate an item treated with a poisonous substance without warning might add physical injury to spiritual injury.

Repatriation, Reburial, Respect

This summer, after an exhausting plane ride that took them from Bloomington to Barrow, Drs. Thomas and Sievert found themselves watching how an Alaska Native community engaged in subsistence whaling uses every part of the animals, like Plains Indians used every part of a bison. Thomas reported, “None of it is wasted.” Everybody ate maktak and then lined up to get an orange, children and elders first. The dancing and the blanket toss lasted past midnight, but since the sun does not set on Barrow in the summer, the late hours were not a problem.

In a more solemn ceremony, the repatriated remains of the ancestors—those returned from IU and also several other institutions—were interred in the Barrow Village cemetery.

While the reburial was the matter at hand, the friendships and institutional ties between IU and the Iñupiat are fruits of NAGPRA, some evidence that Indians and anthropologists can get along in an atmosphere of mutual respect.