► Dumont’s, “Contesting Scientists’ Narrations of NAGPRA’s Legislative History”

Reviewed by: Karyn Denny

In the article written by Clayton Dumont Jr. titled, “Contesting Scientists’ Narrations of NAGPRA’s Legislative History, Rule 10.11 and the Recovery of ‘Culturally Unidentifiable’ Ancestors,” he argued that scientists (archaeology, physical anthropology, and museums) who were involved in the congressional ruling of NAGPRA were purely political and public relations strategy to “resist the repatriation demands of Native peoples” (6).

Dumont examined approximately 1,700 records of these hearings and the final report of the panel indicate “consistent, determined, and nearly universal efforts by the archaeology, physical anthropology, museum, and art dealing industries” who are against repatriation and burial protection bills being considered in Congress (10). Dumont exhibited how scientists fought to re-invent NAGPRA to suit their needs and to keep their “colonial prerogative” (6).

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) became law on November 16, 1990 (P.L. 101-601; 25 U.S.C. 3001 et seq.), and this section also defines federal Indian lands, organizations, and agencies, and native peoples such as an Indian tribe and Native Hawaiian people.  It clearly defines a burial site, cultural affiliation, and cultural items such as associated funerary objects and unassociated funerary objects, sacred objects, and cultural patrimony and possession.

Section 10 of NAGPRA helps Indian tribes and organizations with grants in the repatriation process of Native American cultural items. It also limits authority of any federal agency or museum(s) in the return or repatriation process of Native American cultural items to Indian tribes, Native Hawaiian organizations, or individuals, etc.

In a letter addressed to the manager of the National NAGPRA Program. Signed by representatives from the Repatriation Committee of the American Association of Physical Anthropology it stated the following:

“Human remains and associated funerary objects determined to be culturally unidentifiable cannot reasonably be repatriated according to the guiding principles of NAGPRA, because they lack a demonstrable relationship of shared group identity between a modern day, federally recognized tribe and a past group. If such a relationship cannot be demonstrated, then the balance built into the statute that favors Native American/Native Hawaiian groups in decisions of repatriation where cultural affiliation can be demonstrated shifts to the side of American interests in the preservation of our collective heritage.”

Dumont found many letters written in this nature and questioned the motives of these scientists who clearly don’t support NAGPRA.  Dumont’s  response to these attitudes in these letters is cleverly highlighted here:

“…the inherited privilege and power of the colonial gaze that their assumptions are beyond their capacity for self- scrutiny. That is, the traditions and aspirations handed down from their own European histories appear so natural and normal to them that they are unable to see them as cultural traditions.”

Between February 1987 to July 1990 or spanning over 41 months, Dumont discovered that only one institution called the Bishop Museum in Honolulu actively supported one of the seven pro- Native bills (10). American Indian activist Suzan Harjo, testified supporting the NAGPRA bill stating:

“We have an opportunity to change that view, to take Indians out of anthropology, take Indians out of archaeology, to put us where we belong as people who have developed in wonderful artistic ways and in wonderful functional ways” (16).

Dumont stated as the drafts of H.R. 5237 “moved toward culmination,” scientists from the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) pressed to remove the provisions from the “culturally unidentifiable remains” and calling it “ubiquitous” and “culturally unaffiliated” (25).

SAA attempted to change the statutory terms from “consultation with tribal government” to “consultation with relevant tribal government” (25). Dumont stated that this occurred in a sense that “if modern day tribes were not deemed by the scientists to have ties to their traditional lands,” then their “governments and elders were not “relevant,” making the collection of the dead from those lands would be reported as “culturally unidentifiable” (26). Dumont stated that when NAGPRA came into law, it didn’t do justice for Native peoples, but only further the colonist strategy.


Clayton W. Dumont Jr., “Contesting Scientists’ Narrations of NAGPRA’s Legislative History, Rule 10.11 and the Recovery of ‘Culturally Unidentifiable’ Ancestors,” Wicazo Sa Review 26, no. 1 (2011): 5-41.