The modern field of archaeology has a history mired in racism and European colonialism, especially in America. White colonizers from Europe created the worldwide rise of antiquarianism: the collection of material culture from far-away locales, placing those cultures under a lens of inferiority and exoticism.
The United States has had a particularly troubled past with this issue, and it is still one that plagues the country. First Nations peoples have suffered from the white man’s concept of preserving ‘dead’ cultures. Archaeology students receiving a European-modeled education like Willamette’s must be cognizant of the history and the legality surrounding American archaeology and its interplay with living Native cultures.
In 1990, a law called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed in an effort to repair some of the damage caused by colonial attitudes. NAGPRA ordered all institutions that receive federal funding to return cultural items, including artwork, human remains and sacred objects, to the descendants of their original owners. In theory, this policy has gone a long way in creating a dialogue between Native people and archaeologists, but the implementation of it continues to be a challenge for people on all sides.
Cayla Hill, an Oregon State University (OSU) visiting professor who works primarily with American archaeology, offered some insight to the practical implications. “Within OSU, within your collections, within the fieldwork, NAGPRA applies to everything,” she said. “Especially if you’re working for a federal agency, you’ll deal with the National Historic Preservation Act, ARPA, Section 106, Section 110, those things — and NAGPRA as well. These are all things you’ll deal with on a daily basis, and so it’s good to at least recognize when they were in place and why.”
Since its inception in 1990, NAGPRA has changed. Hill reported that the policies are reviewed every 10 years to keep up with the changing demands of the repatriation task that returns objects from past excavations as well as current ones, including any done on or around WU’s campus. In the early stages, NAGPRA created a daunting task for archaeologists across the country. “There was just so much to inventory … How do you get started? There was no structure in place for how you do it, and there was no additional funding put into place initially for how to get these institutions inventoried. And then on the tribal side, too: how do they get involved? … Who should they be contacting?”
The issues with repatriation and redistribution logistics have continued to challenge archaeologists, especially those new to the field like WU’s archaeology majors, and will continue to do so for some time, despite the constant updates and improvements.
Hill, who works on the national park sites at Fort Yamhill and Champoeg in Oregon, is well-acquainted with the legality of historical archaeology, though she wasn’t always. “I know when I was an undergrad, I had no idea,” she said. “As a student, especially in the field school, you’re only … learning methods, that’s the big focus, and all the logistics are done by the staff.”
Hill elaborated to say that aspiring archaeologists learn legal ins and outs during their graduate school education, but expressed that understanding the policies can be a boon to those starting out in the field.
“Internships I think are a big part of that. I interned at the State Historic Preservation Office, and that taught me so much about cultural resource management and also these archaeological laws,” she said.
“ Students should be prepared to delve into a world of cultural consciousness and careful, systematic work as the university expands its reach into this relatively young academic field. ”
As with most things in the field, Hill’s recommendation was to get hands-on experience for students interested in pursuing a career in archaeological studies.
WU’s archaeology program is growing, and with it comes a responsibility of the students to notice that the field of archaeology is changing. With legal procedures impacting scientists of all kinds, it’s easy to forget that archaeology has a complex dialogue surrounding it. Students should be prepared to delve into a world of cultural consciousness and careful, systematic work as the University expands its reach into this relatively young academic field.
While it does have some flaws, NAGPRA is an important part of holding cultural resource management to an ethical standard and will continue to grow with time and experience. NAGPRA, and policies like it, are in place to protect and preserve cultures which have been historically belittled and exoticized. As the oldest university in the west, one that was founded on the principles of missionary work, it is WU’s responsibility to be aware of its relationship with First Nations people and their ancestors.