For those following the Kennewick Man case, involving attempts by Native American creationists to block the study of a 10,000 year old skeleton discovered in Washington State, there’s a new development. As reported by inappropriate response,</i> the Army Corps of Engineers is still trying to interfere with study of the bones. Now, you may recall that, in April of 1998, the Corps, evidently on direct orders from the Clinton Administration*, dumped 500 tons of rocks on the discovery site, destroying any possibility of further excavation.
Now, the Corps is resisting allowing the scientists to remove some of the skeletal material to conduct tests.
In the meantime, the Senate Indian Affairs committee met on July 14 to receive public testimony on the Sacred Lands Act. But the only members of the public who were asked to comment were carefully screened beforehand, and nobody from the scientific/museum committee was invited. Lawyers, representatives of tribes, government agents, were invited, but not representatives of science. There’s much to object to in the statements that were admitted–for example, Suzan Shown Harjo, President of The Morning Star Institute (which appears not to have a website), told the committee that “the main policy achievement of the repatriation laws is the recognition that Native Americans are human beings and no longer archeological resources,” when that is just the problem with such laws. At some point, a skeleton simply must stop being a relative, and start being an archaeological resource, and that point has to be more recent than 10,000 years ago. If we may claim the bones of any ancestor, no matter how attenuated, and, wrapping ourselves in self-righteousness and lachrymose talk of sanctity, destroy these skeletons before scientists can act, then the entire field of archaeology is at risk.
We see here a classic problem of public choice: tribal groups are lobbying hard for changes in NAGPRA which would give them greater power to do just that. Scientists and the public have a serious interest in preserving these skeletons and ensuring that research can be performed on them. But if the scientific community and the public do not act, NAGPRA could be amended in ways which restrict scientific research even further.
You can find more (slightly outdated) information on NAGPRA at the Friends of America’s Past</i> website.
*-I can’t help pointing out that this runs somewhat counter to Reed Cartwright’s characterization of the Democrats as the science-friendly party.