Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Changing Relationships Between Native Americans and Archaeologists 

12-09-2015 17:35

The repatriation of Native American1 human remains and funerary objects has come to have great prominence during the past twenty years [Cheek and Keel, 1984; Meighan, 1984; Rosen, 1980; Zimmerman, 1989].2 The intense emotions and strong religious convictions of many Native Americans with regard to this issue have been magnified by the appreciation for these concerns felt by many Americans who also have strong feelings about appropriate treatment of the dead. It is safe to say that for most people, "appropriate treatment" does not include archaeological excavation, analysis and curation of the remains.

These social and political forces have accelerated what might have been a more gradual evolution of relationships among Native Americans, archaeologists and others concerned with Native American archaeological sites and artifacts. One of the outcomes of these developments has been the increased power held by Native American tribes and similar organizations in determining the treatment and disposition of Native American human remains and certain kinds of artifacts. These new realities require that archaeologists and others develop new working relationships with Native Americans on a more equal footing than in the past.

In general, the history of relationships between those who studied the archaeology of Native Americans and the descendants of the Indians who originally created these archaeological sites has not been characterized by mutual respect, clear and frequent communication, or regular cooperative activities. In its early years, during the mid and late nineteenth century, archaeological research and interpretation supported the social stereotype of American Indians then current. Scholars tended to discount the substantial achievements evident in the archaeological record and the cultural achievement and complexity indicated by the sites and artifacts of some prehistoric Native American cultures.

The documented plundering of Indian graves in the interest of craniology and phrenology during this period illustrates an absence of consideration for the feelings and wishes of Native Americans on the part of some scholars engaged in these now thoroughly discredited aspects of early anthropological research [Beider, 1986; Riding In, 1992]. This sordid aspect of the history of American anthropology and archaeology has been one of the most effective goads used by modern Indians and their advocates to obtain explicit legal protection for unmarked Indian graves.

Intellectual developments in archaeology during the twentieth century emphasized a scientific methodology, the interpretation of chronological frameworks, and the use of the archaeological record to address general research problems concerning human culture. These developments, however, did not lead archaeologists to develop close, cooperative relationships with American Indians. Those concerned with the preservation of archaeological collections linked to modem Native American tribes and related organizations may pay a severe price for this past inattention.

Increasingly, Indian tribes, other groups of Native Americans and their advocates are insisting on the repatriation of all or parts of such collections, as well as protection of Native American grave sites. Legislation passed by Congress in 1989 and 1990 directs the Smithsonian Institution, federal agencies and museums that receive federal funds to work with tribes and other Indian groups on the repatriation of some portions of the collections they currently hold. The 1990 statute also places restrictions on the future disturbance of Native American graves on federal and tribal land [McManamon, 1992; McManamon and Nordby, 1992; Stumpf, 1992; Trope and Echo-Hawk, 1992]. Archaeologists must move swiftly to recognize the legitimate concerns of these tribes and other organizations and to work with them to provide more archaeological information about their past that they will recognize as relevant [Klesert, 1992; Klesert and Powell, 1993; Ravesloot and Chiago, 1992].

Throughout the last decade, new laws and regulations have imposed requirements for the notification, consultation or consent of Indians or Indian tribes before certain archaeological investigations can be undertaken. Most archaeologists working in the United States on prehistoric or historic sites related to Indians cannot legally ignore tribal concerns. Archaeological investigations undertaken on federal land, about one third of the land area of the United States, must be preceded by consultation with Indian tribes likely to have an interest in or to be culturally affiliated with the archaeological sites slated for investigation. Formal notification of tribes and a willingness to consult about such investigations have been required since 1984 by the regulations implementing the Archaeological Resources Protection Act.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, enacted in 1990, requires federal agencies to consult even more closely with Indian tribes that are known to be or likely to be culturally affiliated with a range of "cultural items"--specifically, Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony--that may be found in archaeological sites whenever these sites are subject to planned excavation or when they are inadvertently discovered or exposed. The consultation is intended to offer the concerned tribes an opportunity to discuss with the federal agency officials how any Native American human remains and cultural items that may be excavated or have been discovered should be handled, described and analyzed. Furthermore, after completion of any removal, description and analysis that is determined to be appropriate, any Native American human remains and cultural items are to be repatriated to the appropriate Indian tribe if requested.

Certainly archaeologists must pay more attention to Indian concerns and interests in the treatment and disposition of Native American human remains and objects that they have most often regarded as being of interest only to archaeologists. This has caused much concern within the discipline of archaeology, not only in the United States, but also in other countries where aboriginal peoples have asserted their rights [Meighan, 1992].

Over the past two decades, tribal Indians have gone from being wards of a paternalistic federal agency--the Bureau of Indian Affairs to asserting authority and power in the best traditions of American self-interest. And, indeed, the entrance of new, powerful participants in any field of endeavor creates a wrenching of traditional structures with attendant discomfort for many.3

Archaeologists and others--for the new power of Indian tribes in these matters also affects the rights to information and objects of concern for cultural anthropologists, physical anthropologists, museum collection managers and curators--must take up the challenge. They must reach out to Native Americans as individuals and as groups, both formally to comply with laws and regulations, and informally to establish personal relationships and complimentary, cooperative programs in education, interpretation, research and resource protection. Archaeologists must offer the benefits of understanding the past that archaeology can provide, but with an awareness that other ways of knowing about the past are likely to be espoused by those with whom they are attempting to establish new relationships, and with an appreciation of these alternative understandings of the past [Dongoske et al., 1993; Rice and Redman, 1992].


It is ironic that modern American Indians, the segment of the American public directly connected to the past cultures and societies that most American archaeologists study, have not been a primary audience for public education and outreach by the archaeological profession. In 1985, discussions among archaeologists, Native American representatives and their advocates raised the serious problem of the general lack of outreach to this group.

....archaeologists and physical anthropologists have failed to communicate their research goals effectively. Few benefits from such research are perceived by the [Native Americans] themselves. There is, moreover, a strong suspicion in some quarters that the research is undertaken for motives of personal advancement of the researcher, without intent to benefit the subjects.4

Although there are some notable and promising exceptions to this lack of attention and concern about sharing archaeological information with Indians [e.g., Bishop et al., 1989; Blancke and Slow Turtle, 1990; Kaupp, 1988; Klesert, 1992; Ravesloot, 1990], this has by and large been the rule.

Archaeologists should take note of the challenge set for them by this situation. Reid has identified two aspects of the challenge after reflecting upon a recent attempt at dialogue between Native Americans and archaeologists. He noted that Native Americans involved in the discussions

...raised objections to their oral traditions being labeled as myths and legends by archaeologists. They preferred to reference them as "stories" and probably would not object to "oral history".... Archaeological accounts of the past, especially of a particular Native American people, are perceived by them to present a threat to traditional Native American accounts of that same past. The perceived threat is that the archaeological account eventually would replace the traditionally constructed past and erode, once again, another piece of their culture.... After two full days of listening to academic papers, the all-Indian panel voiced the opinion that archaeologists appeared not to reach conclusions, which I take to certify their powers of observation. More disturbing, however, was their assertion that the archaeology of the Southwest had no relevance to southwestern Indians.... Do Native American oral histories and scientific accounts of prehistory complement one another, like traditional and modern medicine, or is one destined to be subsumed by the other? These are issues that archaeologists must discuss among themselves and with Native Americans.5

There should be no doubt about the potential importance of cultural history information available from archaeological investigations to Native Americans or about the interest some Native Americans and Indian tribes have shown in archaeology [Crozier and others in Parker, 1991; Ferguson et al., 1993]. Response by tribes and other Native American organizations to the National Park Service`s Tribal Historic Preservation Program has been widespread and intense. In recent years grant applications by tribes to improve tribal historic preservation programs through language programs, recording of oral histories, conservation of tribal objects and archeological surveys have numbered in the hundreds.

Some Indian tribes and other Native American organizations, such as the Makah, Navajo and Zuni tribes, have operated cultural preservation programs that for many years have included archaeological staffs [Begay, 1991; various articles in Klesert and Downer, 1990]. Recent years also have witnessed widespread interest by Native Americans in cultural centers, language retention programs and other activities related to tribal historic and cultural preservation [Fuller, 1991; Sadongei, 1991; Warren, 1991].

Native Americans increasingly seek training and technical information and themselves serve as instructors in courses on protection and preservation of archaeological and ethnographic resources. National Park Service courses in curation, interpretation, archaeological protection and ethnography programs have benefitted from Native Americans` participation as instructors and students. Concern about the contents and care of objects in archaeological collections has fostered an interest by Native Americans in museum methods and techniques as well as in sources of training in museology.

An archaeologist who has conducted scientific archaeology with and for American Indians for a number of years offers this advice:

If archaeologists expect Indians to respect their scientific perspective, and if they wish to be allowed continued access to Native American remains in order to pursue this particular perception of the world, they must in return be willing to concede the equal validity of Native American wishes concerning those same remains. They must be willing to conduct such research in a manner that does not violate basic anthropological ethics concerning the welfare of those cultures being studied. This effort does not imply capitulation to anti-scientific simply requires an adherence to tenets of anthropological relativism--a willingness to learn and understand the Native American world view and to eschew arrogance in the education of Native Americans as to the anthropological view of things. The two points of view (anthropological and Native American) are not mutually exclusive.6

Archaeologists must recognize that their profession does not give them an uncontested or overriding claim on the archaeological record. This is true for many reasons, including American property law and the laws related to the preservation of archaeological resources on public lands. However, it has become most apparent in discussions related to the repatriation of Native American human remains, grave goods and related artifacts. Predictably, archaeologists have displayed the full range of reactions to this confrontation, from an attitude of "it`s about time" to claims that this signals the end of archaeological research as we have known it.

How can this situation be turned to the advantage of both groups in their attempts to understand the past and to protect and preserve the remains related to it? Some critics and skeptics [e.g., Meighan, 1992] have noted that there has been a lot more talk of promise than actual payoffs concerning cooperative efforts between archaeologists and Indians. Acknowledging the truth in this observation, it is encouraging that even Indian activists and scholars such as Vine Deloria and Roger Echo-Hawk, writing in American Antiquity and the SAA Bulletin (both publications of the Society for American Archaeology) have identified specific areas in which cooperation between archaeologists and Indians would be mutually beneficial and lay the groundwork for additional collaborations [Deloria, 1992; Echo-Hawk, 1993].

There also are several specific guidelines that both archaeologists and Native Americans should follow. First, they must communicate effectively, and this should occur both between and among organizations formally and between and among individuals. Second, both archaeologists and Native Americans must clearly and calmly articulate the value of their different approaches to understanding the past; each group must explain how its approach could benefit the other. Third, they should be neither patronizing nor timid in their relations with one another. Finally, both archaeologists and Native Americans should commit to working together for the long term.


  1. The terms "Native American" and "Indian" are used in this essay to encompass a variety of people, societies and cultures who inhabited the territory that is now part of the United States before European contact. Among those referred to by these terms here are American Indians, Eskimos and other Native Alaskans, and Native Hawaiians.
  2. A list of references cited follows the text of this article.
  3. .J. Jefferson Reid, "Editor`s Corner: Quincentennial Truths and Consequences." American Antiquity, Vol. 57, No. 4 (1992).
  4. Dena F. Dincauze, "Report on the Conference on Reburial Issues." Bulletin of the Society for American Archaeology, Vol 3, No. 5 (1985), p. 1.
  5. J. Jefferson Reid, "Editor`s Corner: Recent Findings on North American Prehistory." American Antiquity, Vol. 57. No. 2 (1992), p. 195.
  6. Anthony L. Klesert, "A View from Navajoland on the Reconciliation of Anthropologists and Native Americans." Human Organization, Vol. 51. No. I ( 1992), p. 21.


Begay, D.R. "Navajo Preservation: The Success of the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department." CRM Vol. 14, No. 4 (1991).

Beider, Robert E. Science Encounters the Indian, 1820-1860: The Early Years of Amencan Ethnology. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986.

Bishop, R.L., et al. "An American Indian Outreach Program: Discovering a Partnership Between High Tech Research and Traditional Knowledge in the Hopi Classroom." Paper presented at the Western Museums Conference Phoenix, Ariz., 1989.

Blancke, Shirley, and Cjigkitoonuppa John Peters Slow Turtle. "The Teaching of the Past of the Native Peoples of North America in US Schools," The Excluded Past: Archaeology in Education. London: Unwin Hyman, 1990.

Cheek, Annetta, and Bennie C. Keel. "Osteoarchaeology," Ethics and Values in Archaeology. New York: The Free Press, 1984.

Crozier, S. Neal. "Tribal Cultural Heritage Programs in Alaska." CRM, Vol. 14, No. 5 (1991).

Deloria, Vine, Jr. "Indians, Archaeologists, and the Future." American Antiquity, Vol. 57, No. 4 (1992).

Dincauze, Dena F. "Report on the Conference on Reburial Issues." Bulletin of the Society for American Archaeology, Vol. 3, No. 5 (1985).

Dongoske, Kurt, et al. "Understanding the Past through Hopi Oral History." Native Peoples, Vol. 6, No. 2 (1993).

Echo-Hawk, Roger C. "Working Together: Exploring Ancient Worlds." SAA Bulletin, Vol. 11, No. 4 (1993).

Ferguson, T.J., et al. "Working Together: The Roles of Archaeology and Ethnohistory in Hopi Cultural Preservation," CRM Specual Issue: Traditional Cultural Properties. Washington: National Park Service, 1993.

Fuller, Nancy. "Ak-Chin Him Dak - A New Model for Community Hentage Management Opens to Public." CRM, Vol. 14, No. 5 (1991).

Kaupp, A. "The Hopi-Smithsonian Project: Bridging a Gap." Anthro Notes, Vol. 10, No. 3 (1988).

Klesert, Anthony L. "A View from Navajoland on the Reconciliation of Anthropologists and Native Americans." Human Organization, Vol. 51, No. 1 (1992).

Klesert, Anthony L., and Alan S. Downer, ed. Preservation on the Reservation: Native Americans, Native American Lands, and Archaeology. Navajo Nation Papers in Anthropology Number 26. Shiprock, Ariz.: 1990.

Klesert, Anthony L., and Shirley Powell. "A Perspective on Ethics and the Reburial Controversy." American Antiquity, Vol. 58, No. 2 (1993).

McManamon, Francis P. "Managing Repatriation: Implementing the Native Amencan Graves Protection and Repatriation Act." CRM, Vol. 15, No. 5 (1992).

McManamon, Francis P., and Larry Nordby. "Implementing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act." Arizona State Law Journal, Vol. 24, No. 1 (1992).

Meighan, Clement W. "Archaeology: Science or Sacrilege?," Ethics and Values in Archaeology. New York: The Free Press, 1984.

Meighan, Clement W. "Some Scholars` Views on Reburial." American Antiquity, Vol. 57, No. 4 (1992).

Metcalf, Fay. "Knife River: Early Village Life on the Plains." (A "Teaching with Historic Places" Supplement). Social Education, Vol. 56, No. 5 (1992).

Parker, Patricia L., ed. "America`s Tribal Cultures--A Renaissance in the 1990s." CRM, Vol. 14, No. 5 (1991).

Ravesloot, John C. "On the Treatment and Reburial of Human Remains: The San Xavier Bridge Project." The American Indian Quarterly, Vol. XIV, No. 1 (1990).

Ravesloot, John C., and Clarence M. Chiago. "Working To gether to Understand the Prehistory and History of the Gila River Pima, Arizona." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Pittsburgh, Pa., 1992.

Reid, J. Jefferson. "Editor`s Corner: Recent Findings on North Amencan Prehistory." American Antiquity, Vol. 57, No. 2 (1992).

Reid, J. Jefferson. "Editor`s Corner: Quincentennial Truths and Consequences." American Antiquity, Vol. 57, No. 4 (1992).

Rice, Glen E., and Charles L. Redman. "Power of the Past." Native Peoples, Vol. 5, No. 4 (1992).

Riding In, James. "Without Ethics and Morality: A Historical Overview of Imperial Archaeology and American Indians." Arizona State Law Journal Vol. 24, No. 1 (1992).

Rosen, Lawrence. "The Excavation of American Indian Burial Sites: A Problem in Law and Professional Responsibility." American Anthropologist, Vol. 82 (1980).

Sadongei, A. "New Training Opportunities for American Indians at the Smithsonian Institution--The Amencan Indian Studies Program." CRM, Vol. 14, No. 5 (1991).

Stumpf, Gary D. "A Federal Land Management Perspective on Repatnation." Anzona State Law Journal, Vol. 24, No. 1 (1992).

Trope, Jack F., and Walter R. Echo-Hawk. "The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act: Background and Legislative History." Arizona State Law Journal, Vol. 24, No. 1 (1992).

Warren, W. "A Model Cultural Center at Pojoaque Pueblo." CRM, Vol. 14, No. 5 (1991).

Zimmerman, Larry. "Made Radical by My Own," Conflict in the Archaeology of Living Traditions. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989.

Publication Date: March/April 1994


Author(s):Francis P. McManamon

Related Entries and Links

No Related Resource entered.