Grave robbing has long been considered among the most depraved and demented crimes humans can commit against the living and the dead. But stealing — or borrowing for study — human bodies has provided a plethora of knowledge about “us” as a species ever since archaeology, anthropology and other disciplines were recognized as sciences.
We’ve gleaned important biological, sociological, historical and cultural insight into the human experiment by studying discovered artifacts of past civilizations over the past centuries, often without considering the potentially negative impact on the yet-living societies that carry the grief of our pathological needs.
Scientific cravings, though, have all too frequently supplanted empathy and compassion when it comes to justifying unearthing the ancestral remains of indigenous peoples in literally every nook and cranny on the globe.
Cal State Long Beach should be minimally lauded for helping to right a culturally insensitive wrong by way of a recent humanitarian act.
Whether by fiat or act of institutional compassion (institutionally unlikely), CSULB turned over approximately 250 sets of Native American physical remains to the Ione Band of the Miwok Nation in the Sierra Nevada foothills in Northern California last week.
The “collection” was harvested by CSULB professors and students as part of a 1967 government-sponsored excavation near the Sierra Nevada foothills, according to the Amador County Ledger Dispatch.
Relics from the dig expand beyond the, “Daddy, I found an ‘Injun’ arrowhead” claim of a ten-year-old child. This excavation was via a scientific guild (the California State University system) seeking academic value from the bones of dead people. Simply put, the land where they were buried (some estimate between 2,000-2,500 years ago) was theirs for spiritual eternity — until they were removed, that is.
A 2005 inventory by the National Park Service shows that aside from the 250 bodies, CSULB held “1,876 associated funerary objects” that included “398 chipped stone tools and fragments, 66 ground or polished stone tools and fragments, 744 fragments of non-human bone, 640 shell beads, and 28 pieces of ceramics or fired clay.”
Abiding by the 1990 federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act has been slow for CSULB, other universities and museums. Some foot dragging is caused by cumbersome bureaucracies, partially due to economics, and a large part is attributed to scientific arrogance.
While CSULB has returned the human remains, it still has possession of most of the other items, which are considered by the feds as funerary articles.
Jim Till, CSULB’s interim vice president for Research and External Support, said the process can be slow, but that The Beach is working on returning all of the items. Till is the designated member of CSULB’s NAGPRA committee.
“We are under federal guidelines,” Till said. “It’s been a long process, but we are working cooperatively with Native Americans to return all of the artifacts.”
One of the problems with returning borrowed treasures, it seems, is that many tribes are often either economically incapable of paying for re-burial, or don’t have available land for a cemetery. No state or federal funds are provided to help defray the costs.
It seems that the fair thing to do as part of the repatriation would be to offer compensation to help with burial expenses.
Perhaps then they could truly rest in peace.
Duke Rescola is a senior journalism major and the opinions editor for the Daily Forty-Niner.