Letter to the NAGPRA Committee
Dr. George Gill, Professor of Anthropology, Univeristy of Wyoming and Diplomate, American Board of Forensic Anthropology, submitted this letter (April 2000) to the NAGPRA Committee for their consideration in developing recommendations the disposition of culturally unaffiliated remains. The committee's recommendations rejected the relevance of scientific interests or input into the process.
Mr. John Robbins, Assistant Director
Dear Mr. Robbins:
I am the physical anthropologist for the University of Wyoming, the Curator of Human Osteology Collections at the University, and the forensic anthropologist for law enforcement agencies within the state of Wyoming. I have worked closely with the National Park Service and numerous regional tribal groups in recent years regarding NAGPRA concerns. I understand from a recent notice that the NAGPRA Review Committee will meet soon to discuss, among other things, the disposition of culturally unidentifiable human remains. I have a few thoughts on this important subject that I would like to share with you.
First let me begin by saying that my colleagues within our Department of Anthropology and I fully support the basic intent of the NAGPRA law, and have worked hard over recent years to see that it has been correctly implemented, regarding our own small osteological collection. We have successfully repatriated skeletons to the Kootenai tribe and others, and are involved in discussions with several other Northern Plains tribes.
I have been involved in the curation, study, and repatriation of skeletons of Mormon pioneers, Texas cattle drovers, Chinese laborers, a famous Sioux war chief, a notorious Wyoming outlaw and many others. In all of these cases of accidentally discovered, fairly recent interments of persons of known cultural affiliation, the moral and legal responsibility of how to proceed with regard to coordinations with next of kin (on the disposition of the remains) has always been clear. Close kin simply have a deep interest in, as well as certain moral rights and responsibilities for, the remains of their relatives. Culturally unidentifiable human remains however, are a very different matter.
Until there are known close relatives to decide upon the disposition of such remains they should remain in local, state or federal archaeological collections for proper curation, preservation, education and study. In that way these remains are not only protected and cared for until such time as next of kin might be identified, but they serve a tremendously important role in education and research. At the University of Wyoming each spring semester we have 40 students in Human Osteology class. These are pre-med, forensic science students, archaeology students and many others, all needing detailed knowledge of the human skeleton in order to be qualified professionals. At any one time at least 6-8 research projects are being conducted on human skeletons in our laboratory. Numerous new forensic identification methods have been developed by students and colleagues in my laboratory over the last few years. We have trained students who have gone on to become nationally renowned forensic anthropologists and forensic pathologists. None of this could have happened without the extensive daily use of our small but very adequate skeletal collection. Should all culturally unidentifiable human remains suddenly be removed from our collections this research and most of the essential teaching of skeletal anatomy would of necessity come to a complete halt. The few materials available through biological supply outlets are wholly inadequate for forensic research and only minimally adequate for certain areas of teaching (and wholly inadequate for others).
In sum, I see a number of moral and ethical problems with some current proposals, such as plans to return culturally unidentifiable human remains to Native American tribes that merely happen to demonstrate a close geographic proximity to the sites of discovery. No one should be able to make claim to unidentified persons without demonstration of close biological or cultural relationships. What if within five years from now inexpensive DNA techniques are developed which will allow precise identification of close kin of the presently unidentifiable? At the present rate of scientific development, this is not at all out of reason. And what if in the meantime most of these remains have been given over by our government to inappropriate unrelated groups of individuals? I would not want to be one of those government officials or museum curators who allowed remains to be prematurely released to persons without just claim. Not only would such hasty action be an injustice with regard to present opportunities for study and education, but would be a terrible injustice to the cultural or kin group that eventually might be shown to be the true relatives of the decedents. Please consider these important factors in the upcoming policy meeting of the NAGPRA Review Committee. Thank you.
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