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common ground

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
Fall/Winter 1995, vol. 7(3)

Online Archive

*  Thoughts on Two Worldviews

(photo) Edward Halealoha Ayau, Hawaiian heritage activist.

"Until the 1960s, Indian children grew up playing "Cowboys and Indians," and more than likely, they wanted to be the cowboys. They never wanted to be anthropologists, however, and today there are less than 70 Indians in the profession."

Rosita Worl

by Tessie Naranjo

One fall day in 1991, I received an unexpected phone call from Dr. Francis McManamon, chief archeologist of the National Park Service. Dr. McManamon introduced himself and began to ask a few questions. Given the reason for his call, I responded in detail.

Several weeks before, the governor of Santa Clara Pueblo asked that I apply for a position on the review committee for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. I sent in the paperwork and was surprised when Dr. McManamon called. After several questions about my role in the community, he asked if I would serve a five-year term on the committee. I said yes. My world has changed dramatically since then.

I've read the statute many, many times. I've discussed its meaning with both tribal and non-tribal people. One thing that has struck me is the difference in worldview between them.

Traditional Native Americans believe that everyone and everything exist in an integrated and pervasive system of relationships. One resident of Santa Clara Pueblo puts it this way: "We are part of an organic world in which interrelationships at all levels of life are honored. Our relations to the place we live--the land, water, sky, mountains, rocks, animals, plants--is tangible. This leads us to respect all who have gone before and all who will follow, our elders as well as our youth."

Traditional Native Americans see an essential relationship between humans and the objects they create. A pot is not just a pot. In our community, the pots we create are vital, breathing entities that must be respected as all other living beings. Respect of all life elements--rocks, trees, clay--is necessary because we understand our inseparable relationship with every part of our world.

This is why we honor our ancestors and the objects they created. This honoring allows us to remember our past and the natural process of transformation--of breathing, living, dying, and becoming one with the natural world. Not even in death are we unrelated.

My understanding has been hard to reconcile with the non-tribal view. Consider museums. Human remains and cultural items are treated as non-living entities. Unacknowledged are the enduring relationships that traditional Native Americans maintain with their ancestors and their world.

I have come to realize that the staffs of most museums and agencies do not share our basic values and philosophic views. Museums certainly have had a great impact on our perceptions of who we are. But we do not share the assumptions underlying collection, preservation, documentation, and exhibition--what museums do.

The difference in viewpoint surfaces in most of the activities surrounding the legislation. Encouragingly, this has led to a growing awareness among all those with a stake in repatriation.

This is nowhere more apparent than at meetings of the committee. The meetings are often more like open discussions than formal get-togethers. Decisions are made only after all members, as well as the public, get a chance to air their views. This is the way of my people and the one with which I am most comfortable. Thus far, all of our decisions have been unanimous.

When the committee held hearings in Hawaii on the remains of Pacific islanders, member Dr. Martin Sullivan, head of the Heard Museum, asked Indians in the group to talk about accepting spiritual testimony. Dr. Sullivan was sincerely trying to understand how we should assess this evidence.

During our Phoenix meeting there was animated discussion in which the public questioned the validity of scientific study. Leigh Jenkins, cultural preservation officer for the Hopi, stood up and in a gentle but certain voice talked about how his program works with the archeological community to clarify issues about the past.

NAGPRA has brought together two completely different worldviews in a forum where people freely discuss their differences. This relationship, like any human relationship, is sometimes awkward, sometimes caring, and sometimes difficult. But it is a relationship that will continue.

For more information, contact Tessie Naranjo, P0. Box 1807, Espanola, NM 87523, (505) 753-7326, fax (505) 753-8988.

MJB/EJL