Archaeologists and Native Americans team up to interpret the past, shape the future

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Who owns the dead? In the U.S. this question has long been a source of tension between archaeologists and Native Americans, but some have found ways to work together for mutual benefit. Such examples of cooperation were the focus of the opening session here of the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology on March 31. 

Last fall marked the 20th anniversary of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which was created to facilitate the return of Native American cultural material—including human remains and sacred objects—to Indian tribes, who may rebury them if they wish.

The law requires that museums and other institutions return only those remains that can be traced to federally recognized tribes. Last May, however, additional rules went into effect, allowing tribes to claim culturally unidentifiable remains, too. 

These new regulations drew criticism from archaeologists and physical anthropologists concerned about potential losses to science. There is also concern that the added rules will prevent correct repatriation down the road if new techniques for establishing cultural affiliation become available. 

At an evening session here, speakers made glancing references to “apprehensions” surrounding the new NAGPRA rules, but focused on how archaeologists and Indians can help each other. Archaeologist Wendy Teeter of the University of California, Los Angeles, and archaeologist Desiree Martinez, a member of the Tongva tribe, talked about their work on Santa Catalina Island, off the coast of Los Angeles, where they are studying archaeological sites dating back 9,000 years. 

The ancient islanders participated in an extensive trade network that spanned southern California and the Southwest. Teeter said that her team is incorporating ideas from current islanders and Tongva tribal members into the data interpretation, taking a more “holistic” approach to understanding the relationship between the Catalina Island Tongva and the mainland Tongva. Martinez, for her part, noted that the Tongva are not a federally recognized tribe despite a longstanding campaign for recognition, and that the work on Catalina is helping to document her culture. 

Another example of intellectual symbiosis came from archaeologist Alston Thoms of Texas A&M University and Ramon Vasquez, executive director of the American Indians in Texas at Spanish Colonial Missions organization, who talked about their work at a site that runs along the Medina River in San Antonio. Thoms has been studying hunter-gatherer land-use patterns of the people who lived there more than 10,000 years ago. He described how learning traditional cooking techniques from Indians has informed his understanding of ancient subsistence strategies. 

Vasquez, meanwhile, noted that archaeological insights into what the ancestors were eating have led to the reintroduction of some of these foods into the diet of the modern-day members of the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation, who consider themselves the descendants of those ancient Indians, in hopes of lowering the high rates of diabetes and other diseases that afflict them. 

“The longer archaeologists spend talking with Indians,” Thoms observed, “the better off we all are.” 

Author: Kate Wong | Source: Scientific American [March 31, 2011]

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