The (Ethical) Choice of a New Generation


By: Katie McBride

While not perfect, archaeology had a very different relationship with native communities than it does now. Before the passing of NMAI (National Museum of the American Indian Act) in 1989 and NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act ) in 1990, the relationship was mainly dominated by archaeologists and others, like historians and cultural anthropologists, that were considered professionals. Many of these professionals were not taking seriously the wishes of the modern descendants of those they were studying, particularly about how they wanted both ancestral remains (i.e. human burials) and other important cultural items to be handled.

With the passing of NMAI and NAGPRA, that power relationship became more balanced as the acts essentially gave native communities’ oral histories and voices equal weight with archaeological and anthropological evidence to decide what would happen to remains already excavated and any that would later be found in the United States. Archaeologists now have to inform local law enforcement, the state historic preservation officer and tribes that claim an area as their ancestral domain of any human remains found during excavation. The descendant communities then get to decide what happens to these remains. Does the tribe want them reburied immediately (usually after nondestructive analyses) or studied through destructive means (like DNA)?

In the Gallina region of New Mexico there are no indigenous communities who have legally claimed affiliation to the 900 to 700 year old human remains that have been found during a century of excavation. This puts archaeologists who work there in a different position than most. In the past, and still as a recent publication in Nature Communications on Chaco Canyon demonstrates, no affiliation has been interpreted as a go ahead on any study of human remains. Thus the archaeologists in the Gallina region though are faced with an ethical dilemma. Or as archaeologist Lewis Borck says, “It’s not really an ethical dilemma. Our baseline should be ‘avoidance and do nothing’ unless a descendant community is present and explicitly agrees that we can study their ancestors’ remains.”

The Gallina were a part of the Ancestral Pueblo world and were composed of groups who migrated out of the Upper San Juan region as well as many others (see Borck and Simpson 2017). There are many Indigenous communities around Gallina that have their own way they like their ancestral remains (excavated and unexcavated) and repatriation to be handled. Many archaeologists that work on Gallina archaeology try to avoid burials altogether. This is probably one of the most moral ways of going about this seeing as many archaeologists take advantage of claims of “no affiliation” and proceed with research that indigenous groups find ethically questionable.

Archaeology has come a long way from past practices and has incorporated more ethical procedures, some of which were forced by the passing of NMAI and NAGPRA. Others have been by choice of a new generation of archaeologists, particularly those coming from within Indigenous communities. Recent archaeologists working on the Gallina society have made the choice to not take advantage of the lack of a declared affiliated descendant community and to avoid areas where there are possible burials.

One thought on “The (Ethical) Choice of a New Generation”

  1. I agree with all of your points. The ethical questions are being more readily faced today and the overall climate has improved. Now some states have turned towards strengthening laws that try to place some ethical onus on private citizens’ treatment of private lands. I hope those laws are successful and I hope the professional community continues educating the private sector.

    Speaking of the private sector, with respect to this sentence in your second paragraph: “Archaeologists now have to inform local law enforcement, the state historic preservation officer and tribes that claim an area as their ancestral domain of any human remains found during excavation.” Doesn’t NAGPRA only apply to federal and tribal land? If so many burial sites (most in fact) are not protected under NAGPRA. Feel free to respond or correct me.

    Thank you.


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