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Stereotype of the Month Entry

Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

An article on the return of human remains to the indigenous communities that claim them, with my comments interspersed:

Who owns human remains?
Tiffany Jenkins
4 -- 12 -- 2003

The Kennewick Man, found in 1996 on a riverbank in Washington State, is one of the many casualties of NAGPRA. Initial studies date it at around 9,600 years old, proving it to be of paleo-Indian age, and one of the oldest prehistoric skeletons to be found in North America.

Preliminary analysis suggested the bones are not American Indian but possibly European and the earliest found in this area. But before further research could be done the bones were confiscated. Under NAGPRA any human remains found in North America that predate Columbus's arrival in 1492 are considered American Indian.

See Professor Says Indians Rely on "Victimhood," "White Guilt" for more on this point and Kennewick Man in general.

Some of these remains were left before the pyramids were built and before any written human record. Today, thousands of years later, one group of people can decide their fate: those deemed their modern relatives. This is a position that Marta Mirazon Lahr questions:

"Claims for repatriation are based on ideas of biological and cultural descent, but human populations are not bounded entities through time, and biological and cultural ancestral affiliation are fluid concepts – who are the descendants of our Saxon skeletons, or Iron Age, or Norman ones?"

Ancestral affiliation may be fluid, but it isn't nonexistent, as Jenkins and her scientific brethren would have it.

Some of my ancestors were Saxon. I may be related to them genetically, but I'm not so related culturally, since I'm some 8,000 miles and 400 years removed from them.

In contrast, many tribes, such as those in the Pacific Northwest, live roughly where their ancestors lived millennia ago. Once people settled in a location, many of them stayed there—just as many Saxons have lived in the same location for millennia. If Jenkins thinks all people (or all Indians) are nomadic, she's mistaken.

Incidentally, her mention of the pyramids is ironic. If a culture can exist continuously in one place for 5,000 years, why not for 10,000 or 20,000 years? The order of magnitude is similar, so why is it so hard to imagine?

The idea of fixed groupings and cultural continuity over hundreds and thousands of years is unsound. People and geographic location remain stable for no more than a very small period of time. There is no clear link to people of the past. This notion advances ideas of fixed and separate races that should not be tolerated today and which have been disproved partly through scientific work on human remains.

That's funny...I thought we could trace the cultures of places such as Egypt and China back to their roots 5,000 years ago. I thought these cultures have existed more or less continuously since then. Could be my mistake.

The same could be said of indigenous cultures. The Puebloan and Mesoamerican cultures extend back at least two or three thousand years. Other Native cultures have been just as "fixed" and "stable," though they may have more problems proving it.

"The idea of fixed groupings and cultural continuity over hundreds and thousands of years" is sound because we've documented many examples of such cultural continuity around the planet. In the Natives' case, the link may not be "clear" because they didn't have writing—hence the current debate. But an unclear link is still a link.

In some cases the link is clear. Consider the following from Reading Signs: Breaking the Maya Code Part One in Indian Country Today, 12/11/03:

"In ancient Mesoamerica there are lists of rulers with their birth dates, their accession dates, their death dates, their mothers' names, their fathers' names, dating from 300 AD -- that's way ahead of northern Europe at that time," said Macri. "Native people in the Americas really did have written history from an early time."

Let's recall the differences between European and American civilizations before 1492. In Europe a near-endless succession of kingdoms, principalities, and city-states warred with each other, expanding as they gained influence and contracting as they lost it. As one group of people conquered another, they assimilated and modified the base culture.

So of course European cultures weren't fixed and stable. The geography (easy sea travel) and worldview (spread the word of God) encouraged intermingling. If you wanted to mind your own business, you couldn't. A neighboring kingdom would annex you or a barbarian horde would invade you soon enough.

In the Americas it was different. The geography discouraged empires from forming, and the religion didn't demand converts. For the most part, Native people didn't feel a desire to rule or dominate others. It wasn't part of their worldview. So their bands remained small and relatively insular.

In short, indigenous tribes may well have a much greater continuity with the past than European nations do. Jenkins is operating from a biased set of assumptions if she thinks all cultures are equally fluid. Some cultures change more than others.

Knowledge of these collections should belong to everyone. That one group can censor and obscure access to study on the basis of an identity from hundreds or thousands of years ago, threatens the future of all ideas and understanding.

If I were an Indian activist, I'd love to march into Arlington National Cemetary with a pick and shovel and start digging. For purely scientific reasons, of course. Let the fun begin!

But wait, Jenkins probably would say. That's "different." Now we're talking about our people's remains, not your people's remains. We can't dig them up!

The retreat of reason

Arguments for return make an emotional case. In the past graves of indigenous groups were looted by collectors. Repatriation would mean recognising some of the terrible damage done to these societies and make some amends.

Yes, and Jenkins is doing her best to fight the idea of making amends.

Advocates assert that return will solve contemporary social problems. Rodney Dillon, a Tasmanian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner, travels the world campaigning for reburial. At a conference of receptive museum directors he argued:

"Without our remains where they should be, buried where they belong, we can't cope. People are walking around with their heads down as their ancestors are not there."

Dillon speaks passionately about their problems; water is polluted, few have good jobs and the education system is letting them down. It is clear many people are treated badly and that this must change. But with all the good will in the world, will sending back bones improve these circumstances? If anything it is a distraction, locating present-day problems in the past.

Will returning remains solve contemporary social problems? Depends on what social problems we're talking about. If we're talking about the lack of respect our society affords Native traditions and beliefs...yes, returning remains will force our society to respect Native traditions and beliefs.

Persuading the modern world to respect indigenous cultures would be better than forcing it to. Hence postings like this one. But until the persuasion takes hold, forced respect is better than no respect, I'd say.

The politics of apologising for past wrongs is problematic. It benefits those saying sorry who can claim to be ethical about something they had no responsibility for. It can increase feelings of hurt and vulnerability as claimants are encouraged to compete over just how badly their ancestors were treated. People should be treated well and as equals because they are human, not validated on the basis that their relatives were mistreated long ago.

The politics of not apologizing for past wrongs is also problematic. It allows privileged white authorities to maintain their control over minority communities.

It can increase feelings of hurt and vulnerability as claimants are encouraged to compete over just how badly their ancestors were treated.

That competition could increase "feelings of hurt" suggests that these feelings are shallow and open to manipulation. I.e., that they aren't deep, sincere, and fundamental. Do Native people tell Jenkins she's exaggerating or overemphasizing her scientific beliefs to benefit herself—perhaps to win grants or gain academic standing? No, although she may very well be.

So much for Jenkins' wish to treat everyone equally. She implies Native people are like children, competing for emotional favors, while she's the dispassionate adult, thinking rationally and objectively. Can you say "condescending"?

Let's let Native people decide for themselves if their feelings are hurting them. They're aware and intelligent people. Collectively, they've survived longer than Great Britain or whatever nation Jenkins comes from. They don't need her to decide what's best for them.

People should be treated well and as equals because they are human, not validated on the basis that their relatives were mistreated long ago.

Jenkins isn't treating indigenous people as equal. She's saying her beliefs are superior to theirs, which is the opposite of a multicultural perspective. If she were treating them as equal, she'd accept their beliefs as valid.

It's pretty simple, really. Indigenous people don't necessarily accept that the West's scientific worldview is better than their spiritual one. Like Westerners, they think their worldview is "true." They're demanding that Jenkins and her ilk recognize their worldview as valid, as equivalent to theirs, and she doesn't like that.

Related links
Kennewick Man, Captain Picard, and political correctness
"Primitive" Indian religion
Hercules vs. Coyote:  Native and Euro-American beliefs

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