Science and repatriation

Returning the bones 

My foray into Native Science has been honed by my research in how mass media communicate science, health, the environment and risk. What intrigues me is how–when issues impact indigenous communities—science and ideologies unfold. 

Science is not value-free, and yet the framing of science in media accounts typically elevates science and scientists to a high status typically devoid of ideological underpinnings. But the veil of journalistic objectivity masks the ideologies that permeate science. Premises include: science is endlessly progressive and intrinsically good. Science advances knowledge and information-for-information’s-sake. 

I argue that Western science is infused with values and ethics, just as Native Science is infused with values and ethics. The difference is that Native Science doesn’t pretend to be value-free. Indeed, as Vine Deloria Jr. and Daniel Wildcat observed, values rest at the heart of Indian ways-of-knowing. Relationships with place and other beings, one’s life experiences, and a holistic approach to process connect culture with science. 

The Western tradition of scientific reductionism is counter to the holistic worldview, and it’s this reductionism—the separation of the parts from the whole—that exemplifies the battle over bones. 

An Indian burial mound in Alabama was flattened in 2010 to make way for a Sam's Club

Many cultures, including many Native American peoples, recognize and honor relationships with the dead and with the spirit world. The Osages buried their relatives with food and provisions to ready them for the next world. Many Osage graves were looted, and Indian skulls could fetch the seller a handsome price from a collector or scientist.   

Most of us would roil at the prospect of grave robbers desecrating a relative’s resting place. Would your rage correlate with the age of your ancestor? Would you respect your grandmother’s bones more than your great-great-great grandmother? 

Three unrelated events from the 1990s illustrate differences in our judgments about bodies, bones and burial. In 1995, the well-preserved corpse named “Juanita” was found on Mount Ampato in Peru. Juanita, who lived between 1450 and 1480, has since been put on public display. President Bill Clinton, who was famously photographed with Juanita, quipped, “You know, if I were a single man, I might ask that mummy out. That’s a good-looking mummy.”

A year later, in 1996, two men stumbled over a skull in the shores of the Columbia River in Washington and uncovered the remains of the 9,000-year-old Kennewick Man. Indian tribes and anthropologists fought in court over the bones for 8 years, and the remains are now housed at the Burke Museum in Seattle, the subject of scientific inquiry. 

The last event occurred in 1999, when climbers spotted the exposed body of George Mallory, who hoped to summit Mount Everest in 1924. The climbing team examined the body, made notes, and buried Mallory in the snow and scree. According to the Free Library, Mallory’s great nephew, William Newton Dunn, “said he was glad the team had treated his relative’s remains with dignity and not tried to remove them from the mountainside.” 

These are issues that tug at your heartstrings. Mallory was respectfully buried while Juanita and Kennewick Man were posed for cameras and film crews. And they were all someone’s son or daughter. They were all someone’s relative.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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5 Responses to Science and repatriation

  1. Peter says:

    Excellent article and points! The duplicity between Mallory’s skeleton and how we treated – and continue to treat – indigenous people’s ancestors is a great example. A lot of it has to do with “naming” and giving “identity” to the ancestors, and the example you used clearly shows how some “names” and “identities” are privileged in the medias (and Western science’s) eyes.


  2. sean cruz says:

    Very nice. I like your site design, has me thinking its been a long time since I updated my layout. Welcome back to Portland, there’s much updating to do, and….Jim Pepper lives!


  3. Scott Burns says:

    Great beginning! As a scientist in the Pacific Northwest, I really struggled with Kennewick man. Do we study him or do we immediately give him a burial now? It is complex!

    Scientists do deal with values and ethics all of the time. I am still reeling from being an expert witness in a court case last month and two of my friends and colleagues testifying for the other side lied on the stand causing my client to lose the case. Where are their ethics?


  4. Genbe says:

    To me Human bones are no more sacred then animal bones, as humans are a type of animal, and they are both made of the same chemical composite, and they should be studied, to learned about who the person was in life.


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