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NAGPRA | News and Comment

Public Comment to the NAGPRA Review Committee

B. Ewart, a voice from the public

I am here, not to represent a tribe or a museum but as a member of the public who is concerned with the important issues involved with NAGPRA. As you know, NAGPRA is far from perfect legislation. Nevertheless, it is a reasonable attempt to seek balance between legitimate interests..

The public has a stake in the fair implementation of NAGPRA so the tribes receive the justice and the respect they deserve. The Indian people in this room, over the past three days, have spoken eloquently and with much feeling about their concerns. I commend the committee for giving their concerns your thoughtful consideration.

A perspective that has not been as evident at this meeting is the public's stake in ensuring that the integrity of this nation's museums, educational institutions and other sources of knowledge is preserved.

The American public's stake in their 15,000 museums is not trivial. Last year, American museums had over one billion visitors. That's more than double the number that attended sporting events. Clearly, museums are not a minor backwater. They are mainstream and the public's interest is growing.

The museum experience and the religious experience are different but they are not mutually exclusive. The same people who attend museums also attend churches, synagogs, mosques and sweat lodges. They speak to different sides of our humanity and the human experience. One can be seen as a more intuitive faith-based way of believing and the other as a more analytical quest for knowledge.

Where a religion may depend upon spiritual leaders to impart spiritual truths, a museum depends on trained administrators and staff to interpret and create stories from material evidence. Clearly, a material object may have significant spiritual value to one individual and significant interpretive value to another. NAGPRA seeks to strike the balance.

I am concerned about this committee's balance in resolving repatriation disputes. You have a very difficult task. The claims that come before you are very important, have much meaning and are deeply felt by all parties. The temptation to stretch NAGPRA beyond the letter of the law is understandable. Unfortunately, an unintended consequence may be to undermine your legitimacy and ability to help those you want to help most.

I would like to present two examples of how your credibly can be undermined with the public and government agencies.

At your December, 2000 Nashville meeting, an advocate argued for the repatriation of a point that was found, not with the grave and cultural items in question, but above the grave and dated to 1,000 years younger than the grave. Despite the evident lack of association between the culturally affiliated grave and the point, this committee voted to repatriate the point with the other items. This decision does not inspire confidence in the committee's sense of balance. It is the type of apparent bias that is easily understood by the public. It could make it appear that the committee is motivated by political expediency or zealotry. That could undermine your legitimacy with the public. An unintended consequence of stretching the law in an effort to accommodate the tribes could be to undermine your larger effort and the public's desire to see the tribes receive the respect and justice they deserve.

At the other extreme, if an agency attempts to comply with NAGPRA in good faith and submits a detailed report to this committee with a finding of no cultural affiliation, it is important that you be open to the possibility of no affiliation, of upholding that agency finding and not granting repatriation.

If you over-rule well researched reports without sufficient cause, your credibility with all agencies is at risk. This consequence should be of concern given the committee's extensive discussions concerning the present inadequate state of agency compliance. Why should agencies bother to work with you if they believe you are not treating them fairly or not operating in good faith?

The intentional or unintentional bending of the law to favor one side can make you look like you are more interested in advocating a particular perspective rather than in deliberating and adjudicating a fair and just settlement. That in turn can undermine your larger objective of seeing that the tribes are treated justly and their concerns are addressed as fully as possible within the limits of the law.

You need agency compliance and public support. Staying within the letter of the law can be frustrating. NAGPRA can't solve all of the tribes many concerns but you can do more to help the tribes if you seek balance and are careful not to alienate the federal agencies and the public. Thank you.

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