Politics, Practice, and Theory: Repatriation as a Force of Change in Contemporary Anthropology

Short Seminar

August 4–5, 2004

In preparation for the plenary session on April 7, 2005 at the annual meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology in Santa Fe, NM.

The U.S. repatriation movement is at the forefront of Native people’s concerns worldwide about recovering ancestral remains and culturally sensitive objects. With this in mind, the School for Advanced Research recently hosted a seminar titled “Politics, Practice and Theory: Repatriation as a Force of Change in Contemporary Anthropology,” addressing the effects of repatriation on the field of anthropology. Part of an ongoing collaboration between SAR and the Society for Applied Anthropology, the short seminar, held in August, provided an opportunity to plan for a plenary session to be held at the Annual Meetings of the SfAA in Santa Fe in April 2005.

Since 1989, and in some cases well before, thousands of human remains and many thousands of objects of a funerary, sacred, or patrimonial character have been returned to indigenous communities in the United States. Seminar participants examined the field of anthropology since passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 and earlier legislation mandating that museums and other repositories of Native American human remains and objects consult with, share information about, and return the remains and objects that are subject to repatriation to federally recognized tribes as well as Native Alaskan and Hawaiian communities.

Repatriation is at the core of cultural survival, traditional community revitalization, and political sovereignty. Archaeology is affected by repatriation more than any other field within anthropology. The seminar thus centered not on matters of compliance and the effects of repatriation on Native American communities, but rather on changes that the federally mandated repatriation process has wrought in professional practices, theory, and scholarship, and in the training of the next generation of anthropologists who will work in museums, universities, and other organizations nationwide.

Seminar participants included museum archaeologists (Dorothy Lippert and Stephen Loring from the Smithsonian Institution, David Hurst Thomas from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and Larry Zimmerman from the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis); university archaeologists (Tamara Bray and Thomas Killion from Wayne State University, Keith Kintigh from Arizona State University , and Joe Watkins from the University of New Mexico); and anthropologists working across the borders of the discipline in corporate, foundation, and educational contexts.

Topics varied from Dorothy Lippert’s perspective as an archaeologist and a Native American grappling with ethical challenges and the demands of science and her home community to the experiences of Keith Kintigh, past president of the Society for American Archaeology and active researcher in southwestern United States . David Hurst Thomas examined repatriation in the context of trends in American archaeology in the 20 th century, as did Larry Zimmerman, who looked at how repatriation may change perceptions of what is knowable, and worth knowing, about the past. Joe Watkins and Tamara Bray examined shifts in power and the politics of cultural representation in the wake of repatriation legislation, while Thomas Killion discussed the lessons learned and practices adopted in almost a decade of returns and casework at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.

When seminar members return to Santa Fe in April 2005, again as guests of SAR, they will present findings at a plenary session of the Society for Applied Anthropology titled “The Opening of Archaeology: Repatriation as a Force of Change in Contemporary Anthropology.” In addition to the subjects mentioned above, Rosita Worl, from the University of Alaska Southeast and interim executive director of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, will examine Native American and scientific collaboration on the study of a 10,000-year-old ancestor from Alaska. Plans are underway for a collection of essays by the group to be published by SAR Press.

One powerful conclusion of the group is that repatriation, “with all of its warts,” fundamentally opens up the field of archaeology to a broader set of questions about the past, to innovation in professional practice, and to involvement of a wider range of participants in decisions about the growth—and the relevance—of archaeology in scientific and humanistic terms.

Thomas W. Killion, Chair Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Wayne State University Reiterating Repatriation: How the Process has changed the Field of Anthropology
Tamara L. Bray Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Wayne State University Squaring Difference, Circling Convergence: Towards a Reconciliation of Knowledge Production about the Past
Keith W. Kintigh Professor, Department of Anthropology, Arizona State University Repatriation as a Force of Change in Southwestern Archaeology
Dorothy Lippert Archaeologist, Repatriation Office, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution Syntheses of Anthropological Knowledge and Traditional Knowledge as a Product of the Repatriation Movement
Stephen Loring Museum Anthropologist, Arctic Studies Center, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution Knowledge Repatriation, Community-based Research and Changes in the Questions that Anthropologists are Asking Today
David Hurst Thomas Curator, Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History American Archaeology in the 21st Century: Back to the Future?
Joe Watkins Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of New Mexico The Repatriation Arena: Control, Conflict, and Compromise
Larry J. Zimmerman Professor, Department of Anthropology, Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis Multi-vocality, Descendant Communities, and Some Epistemological Shifts Forced by Repatriation

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