Date of this Version
While paintings of Native Americans and Europeans exchanging goods and cultural values adorn the walls of museums around the United States, actual Native/non-Native interaction over the past 500 years has been one of illusion, not cooperation. Until recently, legislation “protecting” Native Americans appeared altruistic on the surface, but, instead, served only as a facade for keeping Native artifacts in the hands of scientists and collectors. Even the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the most recent legislative attempt to reconcile the past mistreatment of Native Americans, is riddled with obstacles and optical illusions.
Certainly, NAGPRA demonstrates the most protective legislation to date, reflecting changes in the required treatment of Native Americans and signaling future legislation and policy. It seeks to balance the competing interests involved in artifact collecting and strike a compromise between the importance of scientific study and proper respect for Native American religious practices. A case study from the University of Nebraska- Lincoln (UNL), however, reveals the difficulties with NAGPRA’s implementation and enforcement.
In July 1998, UNL confirmed rumors that in the mid-1960s the anthropology department incinerated Native American remains on its East Campus because UNL faculty believed that the remains had no scientific value. Preston Holder, chairman of the department, ordered graduate students to burn the bones in the same incinerator used by the veterinary school to dispose of dead animals. Just nine months earlier, UNL had made another humiliating disclosure. In October 1997, a visiting anthropology professor discovered Native American bones hidden in Room 109 of Bessey Hall 109, which housed the anthropology's teaching collections. Evidence emerged to suggest a UNL professor used the bones for unlawful study and in violation of the repatriation requirements defined in NAGPRA. The reactions of Native Americans, UNL students, and the general public to these unfortunate episodes represent not only the difficulties of implementing NAGPRA, but also the shifting attitudes toward Native Americans.
Advisor: James Le Sueur