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Who Owns The Past


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Who Owns the Past?

NAGPRA, (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) isa legal regulatory body enacted on November 16th, 1990. This actregulates museums, federal agencies and institutions which get moneyto return Native American “cultural items” and skeletons to theirdirect descendants. In this Act, human remains and other culturalitems should be recognized in a way of consulting before them beingtaken back to lineal descendants and tribes known by the federation.Various tribes of Native Americans had laws that passed rules inregard to tribal grave protection and interment. Some of these lawswere Common law, State Statutory Law, Treaty, Sovereignty Rights andothers.

Maria Pearson has been referred to as “the Founding Mother ofModern Indian repatriation movement” because she is the firstperson to speed up the NAGPRA legislation into law. More than thirtyyears ago, Maria was greatly dismayed and shocked to learn that humanremains of Native Americans were not given much respect as those ofwhites. Pearson`s husband was an engineer in the transport sector whotold her that human skeletal remains, both for Native Americans andwhites were uncovered while they were constructing a road inGlenwood. Pearson was shocked to learn that the skeletal remains ofthe whites were swiftly reburied those of Native Americans were usedfor purpose of studying in a laboratory. After learning this news,Pearson seeks for an audience from the Governor. She told Robert D.Ray to give her the remains of the Native Americans, who were a childand a mother. She told the Governor to stop digging up `her people`s`remains (Pearson, 2000).

Human remain of `Kennewick Man` was found on July 28, 1996 nearKennewick in Washington. Many tribes under the federation claimedthis skeleton to be their forefather and wanted to rebury theremains. Some of these tribes were Yakima, Nez Perce Umatilla andColvile tribes. Due to Kennewick Man`s advanced age, archaeologistsargued that there was no enough proof to tie him to modern tribes.Since there was no any cultural evidence to determine which tribeKennewick Man belonged to, it is suggested that new evidence couldstill come up. This is really an issue of controversy (Custred,2000).

Native American burial rituals are next to the natural world and itis really almost holy. According to Native American beliefs, itwould be so controversial for them to dismantle any particular placethat one of them was burred since most religious and spiritualpractices are tied to those places. There are some rituals andtraditions that are applied particularly to Native Americans. Despitethe fact that every tribe in Native America practices its own beliefsand customs, all Native Americans adore the earth greatly. Mostfamilies take care of the already dead and make all the arrangementspertaining to the funerals. It is the responsibility of thosefamilies to move the corpse by themselves and their loved ones areburied in a way that is friendly to the ecosystem or environment. Agood number of Native Americans know that there is more to birth,life and death. The corpse is always put in a casket made of wood ora simple veil and even though it is mostly kept for up to four days,preservative are seldom used to preserve the body (Thomas, 2000). Thecorpse is usually embalmed using dry ice before the burial. There arevarious scholars who have expounded this issue deeply. For instance,there is Harjo, James Riding In, just to mention but a few.

Since time immemorial to the current era, Native American peoplehave always had the knowledge that death from various inevitablecircumstances such as sicknesses and lack of food and water is sonear. Native American tribes believed, and still believe that soulsof the departed ones goes to a spiritual place and in turn becomesforces that affect almost every part of their lives. Quite a numberof these tribes believed in mainly two souls which are souls that diealong with their bodies and the second one is the soul that movesaround before it departs.

Rituals for burying the dead varied greatly among tribes in NativeAmericans like Indians. For instance, pastoral tribes who lived inthe Great Plains areas buried their corpse only when the soil wassoft alternatively, they abandoned them on trees for wild animalsand birds to devour them. Chilly tribes just left their dead bodieson the ice-cold soils so as the vultures and other wild animals couldeat them (Gretchen, 2000). There are those tribes that buried theirdead in the graves like the Hopewell tribes and others such as thosefrom South-Eastern areas did tertiary interment of bones. Theyexhumed their dead, washed the bones and finally buried the bonesagain. Tribes from California cremated their corpse whereas thecoastal tribes of North-West preserved their corpse in morgues.North-Eastern tribes used to keep skeletons of the dead (Gretchen,2000). This was done so as to prepare for a last mass interment whichcomprised of animal hair and adornments for the corpse souls` use inthe next life. Tribes of South and Central Atlantic preserved anddried their corpse. This only happened when and if there wasn`t anoutbreak of any communicable diseases. In case of such outbreaks, theliving ones put the dead bodies in a mass tomb or disposed them offinto a river to be swept away so as to avoid spread of the diseases(Custred, 2000).

Most Native Americans` customs seemed to dwell on helping thedeparted in their next life. Some of the tribes of Native Americangave away the possessions of the dead fighters including wives andeven workers and preferred horses. In other tribes, those left behindby the dead, particularly orphans and widows shaved their hair.Others disposed off their belongings, such as jewelries in memory ofthe departed ones. Tribes from California cry for their dead and havea mourning rite anniversary after a couple of years. They also campvery long funeral ceremonies. Some tribes such as Navajo had fear ofghosts of the dead who they thought haunted the living, and as aresult, they interment the deceased swiftly without any hugeceremony. People from this tribe of Navajo that saw the dead had tobe cleansed though an expensive and long ritual. The pastoral tribesburied their dead hurriedly and demolished their houses andbelongings by burning them (Custred, 2000).

Slack Farm in Kentucky and Dickson Mounds of 1987, where skeletalremains were moved to the sides and remains of the saints taken awaycame to lime light and assisted in stimulating massive support inprotection of Native American g tombs. Various human remains forIndians were uncovered in the Dickson Mounds site which alsogalvanized country wide awareness of the matter.

To protect cultural properties, many countries have come up withvarious laws to do that. In the US, Archaeological ResourcesProtection Act (ARPA) monitors various archaeological sites on statesowned by federation. Personal sites are protected by the owners.Other countries use mainly three important laws to protect theircultural remain. These laws are Selective export control laws, Totalexports restrictions and National ownership laws. Selective exportcontrol laws are applied in countries like Canada, the UK and Japanwhereas Total export restriction laws are used in most Latin Americannations and countries in the Mediterranean regions. These laws stopsexport of cultural items completely (Thomas, 2000).


Various international bodies are addressing the issue of reburyingthe cultural remains because it seems to be the bone of contention.In 1995, for instance the United Stated Had a written agreement withEl Salvador so as to curb all artifacts of pre-Columbian from beingexported from the area. There is also the United Nations Educational,Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) which by 2007 had morethan 190 member countries. UNESCO is a specialized agency of theUnited Nations (UN) whose main objective is contributes peace andsecurity through promoting global interaction via education, cultureand science. Phyllis Messenger has noted that a number of objectsfrom ancient times business people have written articles refusing theagreements and thus cutting down the number of cultural propertiesgiven to these traders.


Custred, G. (2000). The Forbidden Discovery of Kennewick Man.Academic Questions 13 (3): 12–30.

Gretchen, M. Bataille. (2000). The Worlds between Two Rivers:Perspectives on American Indians in Iowa (expanded ed.). IowaCity: University of Iowa Press.

Peason, Maria D. (2000). Give Me Back My People’s Bones:Repatriation and Reburial of American Indian Skeletal Remains inIowa. In G. Bataille, D.M. Gradwohl, C.L.P. Silet. Perspectives onAmerican Indians in Iowa- An Expanded Edition. Iowa City:University of Iowa Press. pp. 131-141.

Thomas, David H. (2000). Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology,and the Battle for Native American Identity, p.78. New York:Basic Books.