What's the right way to respond to the latest demand from various Indian groups around the county?
Congress is under pressure from these groups to force museums and research facilities in the United States receiving federal funds to return the skeletons and other remains taken from Indian burial sites over the past two centuries.Tribal leaders maintain that Indian burial grounds are sacred and thus are no different than any other cemetery. They believe the excavation and shipment of remains to museums, especially for public display, is desecration.
Many museums have been quietly removing such displays for years, even before the issue was raised by tribal leaders. The artifacts were put in storage, out of public view, and reserved for researchers and scholars.
Tribal leaders and their attorneys have been pressing the issue, however, asking that remains be returned for proper reburial, not just removed from public view.
Scientists, especially anthropologists, are divided on the issue. They agree the idea of having their own grandmother exhumed and put on display in a museum is distasteful. But they counter that the study of ancient bones and related remains and artifacts yields valuable clues to a culture.
And, they argue, Indian burial grounds are not singled out for research. Scientists are studying the remains of Civil War soldiers recovered from abandoned churchyard cemeteries. Bones and other remains of soldiers who died fighting the Indians at the Little Bighorn, recovered in the last three years after a prairie fire swept the battlefield site, have helped answer many questions for historians and anthropologists.
In some places, including Utah, a compromise has been reached that appears to be mutually satisfying. Indian burial grounds emerging as the Great Salt Lake recedes are being quietly excavated, the remains studied briefly and observations recorded. The remains are then turned over to their descendants for reburial according to tribal custom.
The same could be done for the bulk of the Indian remains now in storage in museums. The remains could be catalogued, analyzed, photographed, and a detailed medical examination done. The information could be computerized and stored for future researchers, and the remains returned for a proper burial.
Not all of the collections currently held by museums should be handled this way, however.
Some cultures, such as the Anasazi, disappeared and left no clear descendants. Some remains are so fragmented, or their documentation is so sparse that no clear tribal identification is possible. Who speaks for them?
When do human remains cross the line from being a direct ancestor that should be left undisturbed to a historically important artifact that merits preservation?
This is an issue that should be settled on a case-by-case basis, not by a sweeping, all-encompassing mandate handed down by Congress.