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Anthropologists Respond to Discourse on NAGPRA Enforcement

Today we feature a timely commentary by AAA members Ventura R. Pérez (U Mass-Amherst), Ryan Harrod (UNLV) and Debra Martin (UNLV), addressing key issues relating to the protection of archaeological sites and repatriation of Native American artifacts. A more extensive version of this article will appear in September Anthropology News. The authors welcome comments below and through coauthor Ventura Pérez (vrperez[at]anthro.umass.edu).

Politicizing the Looting of Archaeological Sites

On June 10, 2009, federal agents served warrants to 24 individuals based on a two-year undercover operation of illegal trafficking of archaeological artifacts from Indian reservations and public lands. The felony arrests included charges stemming from the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Days after being arrested and accused of trafficking in stolen artifacts two of the defendants, Dr. James Redd of Blanding, Utah and Steven Shrader of Santa Fe, NM, committed suicide. The suicide of a prominent Utah physician sparked a public debate throughout the country. Many members of the media have presented the story as one of “overkill” by the federal government and the resulting “victimization” of individuals who participated in illegal looting, collecting and selling of Native American “treasures.” The media’s tone appears to have been shaped by the political rhetoric of Utah’s lieutenant governor and US senators.

Senators Orrin Hatch (UT) and Bob Bennett (UT) demanded an investigation into the actions of the federal agents who made the arrests. In a letter written to US Attorney General Eric Holder, Senators Hatch and Bennett declared, “The execution of these warrants has brought nothing but alarm to a community that was already distrustful of federal law enforcement.” These sentiments are echoed in a Chicago Tribune internet forum by someone calling themselves “Not an Anthropologist” from Highland Park, IL: “This is roughly the same as sending a SWAT team after someone digging through a contemporary landfill. After all, these ‘artifacts’ were just tossed around by the ‘Native Americans’ who owned them. If they didn’t care, why should we?”

On June 15, 2009, Lt. Governor Gary Herbert of Utah reinforced these attitudes when he stated in an interview given to KSL-TV that “the circumstances down there, just from a cultural, historical perspective, may warrant a little softer approach.” These statements are endemic of the ideology held by many Americans, which celebrates the historical presence of Euro-Americans but neglects the 10,000 plus years of American Indian history.

The media’s politicization of this high profile case has had a profound impact in normalizing the cultural violence of these acts. The simple story presented by the media glosses over the complexities of how injustices play out on numerous levels for American Indians in general, for anthropologists working in good faith within the guidelines of NAGPRA, and for the descendants of the Indians who lived and died at those sites being looted. As anthropologists, in our teaching, research, writing and presentations, we need to educate a largely uninformed public about the broader arena of harms that these illegal activities contribute to. The federal agents are doing their job. The people committing the crimes (most of whom had been charged before, so knew it was a crime) are not victims. We need to promote better education and understanding of the relevance of indigenous cultures, which can help to strengthen an already fragile series of federal laws enacted to protect archaeological sites in this country.

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