Native Americans voice concerns over practices, theories of archaeologists

Meeting seeks to draw groups to common ground

April 16, 2000|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

Archaeologists and Native Americans from the Chesapeake Bay region staged a rare meeting yesterday to debate their conflicting claims to the history, culture and earthly remains of America's first inhabitants.

"In pursuit of the past, in the pursuit of history," a question inevitably comes up, said Gabrielle Tayac, a Piscataway Indian. "Who owns that past? Who owns that history?"

Tayac spoke at a symposium in Crownsville titled "Who's Talking and Who's Listening? Interpreting Maryland's Past from Native American and Archaeological Viewpoints." The meeting, organized by the Archaeological Society of Maryland and the Maryland Historical Trust, was called to help the two sides find common ground.

Much of the conflict focuses on bones. Under federal law, the remains of thousands of Native Americans held by museums have been returned to tribal groups for burial. But some archaeologists have opposed the process, arguing the bones hold a precious record of life before the first Europeans arrived.

Many institutions -- including the state's Jefferson-Patterson Park and Museum in St. Leonard -- still hold remains with no clear link to an officially recognized tribe.

Tayac, who works at the National Museum of the American Indian, said all Native American remains still held by museums should be buried. "Someday, my child will be dead and gone," she said. "I don't want him to be dug up. I don't want him to be studied, or reviewed or inspected."

One archaeologist protested that some bones in museum specimen drawers probably belonged to isolated hunter-gatherers who had no links to any existing Native American group.

"I think people should be left in their final resting place," Tayac responded. "Whatever their tribe, whatever their heritage, I'm sure their last wish was not to be in a box in somebody's osteology lab."

Charles C. Clark IV, assistant chief of the Nanticokes in Delaware, said archaeologists too often act as if they belong to a "secret club," not sharing their information with Native Americans. Clark also criticized archaeologists for not listening to the descendants of the people they study.

"It's very nerve-wracking to have people insist that they know more about your heritage than you do," he said. "There has to be give and take. There has to be an interplay of ideas."

In the 1920s, Clark said, anthropologists and others sought out Native Americans to record their languages and customs. But modern archaeologists seldom bother to consult tribal groups about their work. It's a mistake, he said. "Not everything we have to say has been voiced by us yet."

Neither do Native Americans like having someone else write their history. Clark criticized the recent suggestion by anthropologists that some of the oldest remains discovered in North America belonged to Europeans. "Some guy got lost on the way to Europe?" he asked. "I've got a problem with that."

Many Native Americans also reject the dominant scientific theory that the ancestors of Native Americans first came across the Bering Strait from Asia more than 10,000 years ago. Instead, many believe that all the tribes originated in the Four Corners area of the southwest United States.

William P. Barse, a Baltimore-based archaeologist, said the out-of-the-Southwest view has about as much credibility with archaeologists as creationist theories do with scientists who believe in evolution. Belief in the story, he pointed out, is based on faith, not evidence. "It's the classic schism between ideology and science," he said.

Barse says archaeologists face increasing restrictions in their work on Native American sites, and he said that's a shame.

"If we take the position we're not going to excavate these sites and not deal with them, we're going to lose access" to important information, he said. And that could deprive many Native Americans of information about their history and culture.

On the other hand, some scientists admit they have a lot to learn from Native Americans. Virginia Busby, an archaeologist with the University of Virginia, said that only by studying the beliefs of Native Americans was she able to understand their view of the landscape they lived in. "The landscape is imbued with a life force," she said. "Things are in motion and alive."

Tayac, of the National Museum of the American Indian, says the "tremendous conflict and controversy" between Native Americans and archaeologists isn't likely to ease in the near future.

"There's been a lot of talk so far about respecting rights," she said. "What we're waiting for is to see what is actually happening here."

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