(Human) remains in the fray

By Greg Harman
[email protected]

The fight over the remains of numerous “archaic hunter-gatherer” Indians held at the Witte Museum is far from settled. While protestors haven't been able to maintain their avowed weekly protests, several of the organizers will be back in front of the museum late morning Saturday.

Juan Mancias, tribal chair of the Carrizo Nation, the most likely Native American group connected to several bundle burials held at the Witte, wants those remains returned for reburial â?? even if that takes a protracted PR war on the museum. “I promised my ancestors I'd be there, and I'm going to be there as often as I possibly can.”

Of course, federal law, specifically the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, only requires such returns when there is a federally recognized tribe to work with. Unfortunately, the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation, still weaving its way through the recognition process, hasn't been “legitimized” by the Great White Fathers in Washington, D.C.

While Witte reps have begun the meeting process with representatives of several Native American groups, the pressure to work under NAGPRA guidelines has diminished the chances of a speedy return, Mancias and others told the Current. I was familiarized with the challenges the federal law plays in a state where most Indians don't enjoy federal recognition while writing Battle of the Bones.

But, hey. NAGPRA isn't all that. According to Indian Country Today, a scathing new report by the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers and the Makah Nation of Washington spotlights the apparent misuse of NAGPRA funds that has resulted in the failure of the U.S. Parks Service to return the remains of hundreds of native peoples for reburial.

Says Mancias of the Witte talks: “I think a lot of it is still argumentative at their part and they just want to keep holding on to the bones. I don't even know why they want to hold onto them, really. They've already extracted enough DNA and did the studies on the mandibles. They should just put them back in the ground, whether they give them to us or not.”

Here's an excerpt of the ICT report:

WASHINGTON - A new report finds several problems with the management of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, but the top manager who administers the program says many issues are already largely accounted for and that the research is misleading in some of its conclusions. Still, tribal officials say that the hands of officials at the national NAGPRA office are not clean, and that congressional action should be taken.

The report, issued jointly by the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers and the Makah Nation of Washington Aug. 14, found that the National Park Service used more than $3 million in tribal grants since 1999 for purposes other than supporting museums and American Indians to participate in the repatriation process.

The report also found that ''the National Park Service ... is one such agency that has the remains of hundreds of Native Americans in storage because the service has withdrawn the public notices that tie the remains and objects to contemporary Native Americans.''

Those two findings are especially controversial, since NPS oversees the national NAGPRA office, which was established in 1990 when Congress passed the law - a law that created a legal process for federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding to return American Indian human remains and cultural items to their respective tribes or lineal descendants.

NPS, an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior, funded the NATHPO/Makah study via a grant issued in 2006.


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