Robert L. Kelly, a professor of anthropology at the University of Wyoming, wrote an op-ed piece in the Dec. 12 New York Times lamenting new rules under the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act that will hinder the dialogue between scientists and Indian tribes and needlessly transfer “culturally unidentifiable human remains to other Indian tribes,” sometimes tribes that aren’t federally recognized, a clear violation of the original law.
Mr. Kelly contends that those who wrote the original law understood that the older the remains, the more difficult it is to affiliate them with a modern tribe. Modern science continues to develop better and more accurate methods to determine cultural affiliation, and by instituting these new rules, museums and scientists will be robbed of a chance to continue their work and see that skeletal remains are repatriated to their proper descendants. There are 124,000 sets of remains that cannot be affiliated with recognized tribes using current evidence, and the effort to immediately repatriate these remains to tribes that have no demonstrable cultural affiliation with them, Mr. Kelly argues, undermines the years of collaboration between tribes and scientists. Once leery of archaeology, Mr. Kelly has found that many tribes now view it positively and have begun studying the science themselves.
In a letter to the editor, Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, a curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, argued that Mr. Kelly’s notions were misguided. Mr. Colwell-Chanthaphonh argues that the new regulations provide a reasonable basis for locating the appropriate tribes and getting the remains to them, allowing museums to voluntarily return said remains under state law and with the approval of the secretary of the interior, Ken Salazar.