Courtesy School for Advanced Research
Moderator T.J. Ferguson with panelists Dr. Rosita Worl, Theresa Pasqual and Mark Mitchell discuss "Community Challenges in a Post-NAGRPA Landscape."

Grappling with the Complexity of NAGPRA

Frances Madeson

The room was both packed and hushed at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe when Brian Vallo, director of SAR’s Indian Arts Research Center, introduced the guest panelists in the second of a series of four evenings that will comprise “Forging New Landscapes in Cultural Stewardship & Repatriation.” For an intense hour, in an almost reverent atmosphere, attendees were privy to the expert reflections, insights and epiphanies of moderator T.J. Ferguson, an anthropologist from the University of Arizona, and the three Native panelists: former Tesuque Pueblo Governor Mark Mitchell; independent consultant Theresa Pasqual from Acoma Pueblo; and Dr. Rosita Worl from Alaska, who served on the NAGPRA Review Board for 12 years.

What emerged from “Community Challenges in a Post-NAGPRA Landscape” was not just a litany of grievances, though grievances were necessarily given voice, but a balanced assessment of NAGPRA’s impacts on tribes who have engaged in the lawful pursuit of the return of their people and objects. Worl went so far as to say that NAGPRA was “a good law, a great law, though it has its flaws.” Its greatness in her view was that it gave teeth to recognition of Native religions, it acknowledged communal rights, which she said is “a very difficult thing to do in American law.” It enhanced relationships between the tribes, various institutions and scientists; and it gave recognition to Native American knowledge especially oral histories, “knowledge that museums are incorporating into exhibits.”

But Worl was equally clear about NAGPRA’s inequities, starting her list with the dispute process, which in her description sounded almost farcically unfair and unenforceable. “The museums have no obligation to do anything, the museums are not compelled to adhere to the findings. There’s not even anything to compel them to file their inventories.” These startling details helped to flesh out the discussion of the law’s inadequacies laid out in the first session, “NAGPRA Then and Now.” And also perhaps helped explain the mindset that leads on occasion to wildly brutal outcomes. “We had a small finger bone returned to us,” Mitchell explained. “I asked them, ‘What happened to the rest of it?’”

RELATED: The Excruciating Legacy of NAGPRA

Ferguson recalled that when NAGPRA was passed in 1990, people thought it’d be a two or three-year process: the inventories would be prepared, and the materials would find their way home sooner rather than later. But for the last 26 years Native professionals working on behalf of their tribes and nations on repatriation issues have been confronted with a steady stream of grotesque absurdities (like the horrible detail of receiving that finger), which have hindered progress and caused untold distress. After 9/11, Worl had hope: “With all the emphasis on return of human remains, I thought surely now they’ll understand how we feel about having our human remains returned. But only a very small percentage have been returned.”

Pasqual’s long-time participation with repatriation issues has led her to question fundamental human morality. “Why is it that in this country we have to have a law passed to ensure we get remains of our ancestors back?” she asked. “What makes us different?” Some of her work with tribes has been keeping tabs on the various jurisdictions in which pueblo lands fall: New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah. She was charged “with knowing what was moving in four different states: who’s in office, which policies are being moved.” She spoke of the sheer volume of requests for information and verifications, a burden that somehow has to be met. But even as tribes struggle to hold up their end of the “unfunded mandate,” a ceaseless flow of sacred objects still finds its way to auctions, eBay and the black market. “We will not stand for this anymore,” she said. In fact, she spends a lot of time considering how to get tribal possessions back: “Legal, illegal, what’s the best path to pursue with those items?”

Worl too has deployed creative strategies to recover sacred objects illegally brought to market: she’s written to institutions caught trying to  sell tribal objects that don’t belong to them demanding they stop and give the objects back. “In the case of the Andover Foundation, we told them we wanted them to comply with their own mission statement—to respect the beliefs of everyone.” Sometimes the appeal to conscience is effective and objects are recovered.

But more often it’s money that does the talking. She’s bought back sacred objects from collectors, raising money from friends and associates to do so. In fact, she’s working to seed a Sacred Objects Fund for this purpose. She’s also promoting tax legislation to provide credits to collectors who want to return objects without a total loss of their investment. Working so tirelessly for positive change herself, she’s on the lookout for its effects. “I have noticed a change, museum people have more sympathy to Native beliefs.”

Pasqual was sensitive to the fact that sometimes Native beliefs are contradictory. “We have multiple origin stories, sometime they’re in conflict with each other. When Hopi disputes Navajo affiliation, what do you do with that as the federal agency, how do you sort that out?” It's an important question, which she didn’t hesitate to answer. She advocates for “giving the practitioners of NAGPRA the tools to get through the process and be alright to get through conflict, without rewriting history.”

Or as Worl put it: “How much change do we have to go through before we are no longer Tlingit? We always have to make the accommodations.”

Mitchell told of countless unwelcome intrusions into their Tewa culture, demands by museums for information the Tesuque Pueblo had no inclination to divulge. “We’re a pueblo that doesn’t share everything under the sun. Why are you asking the tribes for information about our laws and our belief system? We felt it was inappropriate.” The dispute with one museum over sacred objects has spanned the tenures of a few directors. “We’re still hoping we can bring them home.”

Sometimes objects are returned whether a tribe wants them or not. Pasqual recalled having objects mailed in anonymously; and once she had a large box delivered to her front door. “People have had bad karma from taking things, and they want to give them back.” Or sometimes people will find odd things, like a human skull in a desk drawer, there for some reason no one remembers, and they’ll offer them to the pueblo. “They ask us, do you want it? But we can’t be the repository for everything. We want to give closure for the people and to the objects, keeping things in balance in the spiritual world.”

Mitchell also explained why not every object offered to Tesuque has been embraced. “There were other Tewa pueblos they might have belonged to. There’s a belief system behind it. Our philosophy is we look at the whole world as one. We always pray across the seas, where human life is in danger. We hope mankind can open its eyes.”

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