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Editorial: Slow progress on cultural wrong of desecrated American Indian burial sites

University of Massachusetts anthropology professors Rae Gould and Robert Paynter chat in Gould's office at Machmer Hall Wednesday, Feb. 6. Gould is the repatriation coordinator for the university.

University of Massachusetts anthropology professors Rae Gould and Robert Paynter chat in Gould's office at Machmer Hall Wednesday, Feb. 6. Gould is the repatriation coordinator for the university. JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

History cannot be divorced from the present. What’s been done affects today and tomorrow. And sometimes those alive now are left the moral task of making amends. This philosophy is playing out at the University of Massachusetts Amherst as the school returns the remains of 65 American Indians to their modern-day tribes.

The remains were stolen from native burial mounds in Florida in the 1920s and donated to the university in the 1980s.

Neither the tribal leaders today nor the UMass professors were involved in the desecration of graves and misappropriation of bodies. Yet they are the ones charged with returning the remains, digging through scant documents, deciphering geographies that no longer exist and working through the injustices visited upon American Indians.

We commend the people at UMass and the tribal leaders they are consulting for their work to correct this wrong. The process of repatriation can take years. Indeed, the university has been working on the return of a single collection of remains for more than a decade. It can become contentious.

But there is no doubt that repatriation is the right thing to do and we encourage all universities and museums still holding American Indian remains to invest the time and effort into returning ancestors to their tribes.

UMass gets additional kudos for making the unconventional move of hiring an American Indian repatriation coordinator a few years ago.

Repatriation cannot begin to make up for the brutal way America Indians were treated by arriving settlers and the United States government. But it needs to happen. The return and reburial of ancestors is important to most tribes. It is viewed as so sacred that to talk of burial with people outside the culture is rarely done.

The repatriation of American Indian remains and the objects with which they were buried is mandated under the Native American Graves Protection Act (NAGPRA) of 1993. The law strengthened the hand of native peoples wishing to identify people and culturally relevant items held by public collectors. It gave them legal ground to challenge institutions for the return of their ancestors. Before the act, tribes that attempted this were often met with resistance, according to remarks of the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, a strong supporter of Native American rights, who represented Hawaii from 1963 up to his death a few months ago.

“It is virtually only in instances where a museum has agreed for moral or political reasons to return the goods that tribes have had success in retrieving property,” Inouye told Congress in 1990 on the proposed graves protection legislation. He argued that displaying native remains in museums — but not those of European settlers — sends the racist message that Indians are different and inferior.

Not all institutions support repatriation. The scientific community did not respond warmly to the graves protection act. Archaeologists feared the law would stifle research and that returning so many artifacts would diminish the field of anthropology. Some anthropologists still feel this way.

We feel that returning American Indians to have their proper resting places trumps scientific research. And as some anthropologists note, if research on remains is so vital to public understanding, why wasn’t it done during decades and centuries these bones were held?

While UMass is acting, many institutions are not. The 1993 law has helped make clear that the remains of more than 100,000 American Indians, along with millions of funerary artifacts, remain not in the hallowed places they belong but in public collections. The work of reconciliation is not yet complete.

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