Scholarship Versus Racial Identity in Anthropology

We recently published a book titled Repatriation and Erasing the Past (University Press of Florida, 2020), its reception on social media reflects the emotional and dogmatic thinking that has infected so much academic work in the United States and abroad. In our book, we are critical of repatriationism, which we define as any law, practice, or ideology that seeks to give Native Americans or their presumed spokesmen the power to censor anthropological research by controlling access to archaeological remains or by limiting topics of research and publication on those remains. Repatriation thus defined includes statutes and administrative regulations, as well as any demand or argument in favor of such practices.

Following the book’s publication was a Twitterstorm of vituperation calling our work racist, against indigenous peoples, and unworthy of publication. Detractors attempted to convince the University Press of Florida to withdraw the book and to keep it from open access. The director of the Press then felt compelled to publish an apology. In this apology she states: “It was not our intent to publish a book that uses arguments and terminology associated with scientific racism. I assure you that, months ago, changes to our editorial program had already started to take place, including greater focus to inclusivity and sensitivity, and we will continue and redouble these efforts.” An Open Letter signed by nearly 900 people, many of whom are in academia, condemned our book. How many of these 900 individuals actually read the book in its entirety, or even a part of it, is unknown to us. And, most egregiously, the British Association of Biological Anthropology and Ostearchaeology has called for an outright ban of Repatriation and Erasing the Past, seemingly unaware that we are living in a democracy that does not ban books, but rather debates the contents. Much of the activity on the internet regarding the book has been in the form of ad hominem Tweets, such as noting that I (Elizabeth Weiss) should not hold these views as a fairly young female, as opposed to an older white male.

One may wonder what our book contains that has raised so much ire. Our book documents the great scientific and historical value of studying bones and other human remains. These past persons document demographic structure of skeletal populations, diseases, injuries, diet, industrial practices, and other matters in ways that no other source of information can provide. With recent developments in ancient DNA and bone chemistry, we can trace origins, migrations, and genetic relationships among groups of people that would have been impossible a few decades ago. With European skeletons, where such research is not censored, we have an extraordinary biological record of human activity.

Our book also considers in some detail activists’ attempts to limit scientific access to ancient North American skeletons on the grounds of their supposed relationship to contemporary tribes, pointing out the weaknesses of those claims. We further criticize the repatriationists’ view that there is a uniform, traditional Native American custom of immediate burial of the dead, which should take precedence over the scientific study of skeletons. In fact, there is a great deal of variation in the traditional treatment of the dead; for instance, among the Plains tribes, the deceased were often placed on a scaffolding above the ground to allow for soft body parts to decay, and among the southwestern Pueblo Indians, those who were deemed to be witches were dismembered after death. Many groups curated their relatives’ remains in a way that did not involve immediate burial. Historical reports, some as late as the 1960s, from anthropologists note that aboriginal groups worked alongside them and that they did not seem disturbed by the excavation, study, and curation of these human remains.

Perhaps unique to our book is that we also discuss the distinctive features of Indian law as it has developed in the United States since the colonial period. We highlight the relevance of the religion clauses of the United States Constitution’s First Amendment, since many claims made on behalf of Indians (repatriation claims and others) assert that the challenged actions interfere with, or perhaps merely contradict, Native American religious beliefs. Such claims commonly cite religious rituals, origin and migration stories, supernatural transformations, and the behavior of the spirits of the dead. For instance, the tribal claimants to Kennewick Man (a Paleoindian skeleton dated to over 8,000 years old from Washington State that has now been reburied), argued that the link between the modern tribe and Kennewick Man was in part proven through a tale that involved a trickster coyote sailing down the Columbia River in a steamboat. The Zuni have claimed that their ancestral land expands far beyond the current boundaries through the use of creation stories that began with an underground migration from a water origin, followed by a land migration and a transformation from water creatures to humans, and ending with a river crossing in New Mexico where children reverted back to water creatures and bit their mothers.

Indian activists, repatriationists, and scholars who do not wish to be seen as critical of Native American accounts argue that such traditions should be accepted as evidence that is equal to, or perhaps superior to, evidence from osteology, genetics, archaeology, and ethnohistory, and that legal rights and privileges should be granted based on such evidence. Further, repatriationists claim a moral and legal right to limit or censor anthropological research and writings, such as our own book, to avoid contradicting or impugning of such traditions. For example, a professor in Arizona wrote a book on Native American religion but was prevented from publishing it because tribal leaders hired lawyers and successfully blocked the publication (see Mihesuah 1993). Such arguments and actions would never be accepted by a court if offered by a practitioner of Christianity or another monotheistic religion.

To combat repatriationism and the vilification of those who disagree with repatriation, we offer an alternative: a return to objective knowledge. We endorse the philosophy of Karl Popper: the philosophy of objective knowledge, which involves the free exchange of information, views, assertions, arguments, and opinions, in which the only authority or superiority is the scholar’s ability to convince others. Without a return to objective knowledge, the campaigns of vilification, such as the one directed against our book, will continue to have a punitive and deterrent function that cannot be ignored. Consider a young scholar choosing his research plans, such as a Ph.D. candidate searching for a dissertation topic or an untenured assistant professor drafting an article to submit for publication while hoping to retain his position. Would such a person be willing to risk his career through some research or publication that would expose him to a reckless and false charge of racism, especially if the charge comes from a faculty member in his own department or at his university? Can we reasonably expect a fair and honest discussion of repatriation issues in such an atmosphere of intimidation?

The calls to condemn and ban Repatriation and Erasing the Past are distressingly familiar to anyone who has followed the progress of cancel culture in the United States. Expressions of outrage, assertions of hurt feelings, name-calling, and demands for censorship are offered in place of refutation. The specific factual, scientific, legal, and philosophical arguments of our book are ignored. It is hard to imagine a more eloquent demonstration of the cogency of our arguments and of the necessity of the book’s publication. Among other things, our critics claim that we undervalue the work of “indigenous scientists,” to which we reply that there are no indigenous scientists and no nonindigenous scientists. There are only scientists, and the validity of their arguments does not depend upon their racial and ethnic background. We urge all readers of this post to compare our book with the comments offered by our critics. We believe that any fair person will see the legitimacy of our arguments and documentation.

“Our antagonist is our helper” said Edmund Burke, and we agree. So long as the free exchange of uncensored views can occur, all of us will benefit.


Image: Axel Hindemith, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license, cropped.

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James W. Springer and Elizabeth Weiss

James W. Springer is a retired attorney living in Peoria, Il. You can contact him at jamesspringer833@gmail.com. Elizabeth Weiss is a professor of anthropology at San José State University. She is the author of the books "Paleopathology in Perspective: Bone Health and Disease through Time" (2014, Rowman and Littlefield) and "Reading the Bones: Activity, Biology, and Culture" (2017, University of Florida Press). You can contact her at Elizabeth.Weiss@sjsu.edu.

6 thoughts on “Scholarship Versus Racial Identity in Anthropology

  1. I am saddened to find that biological anthropology has followed the trajectory that turned cultural anthropology from a scientific discipline into a leftist in-group that ignores its own data to justify ideology. I entertained ideas of moving to biological, hoping to find more intellectual freedom and rationality there than in cultural, but Professor Weiss’s experience is disheartening. When honest inquiry and objectivity are punished, the truth becomes whatever those in power say it is.

  2. Any claim of ancestry rights in the East is complicated by a couple hundred years of warfare.

    First, the tribes themselves fought often genocidal wars between each other. For example, the Mohawks exterminated the Pocomtucs who had lived in and around what is now Deerfield, Massachusetts. And the reason why the Pilgrims had received Indian assistance was because they wanted assistance in defending themselves against the Narragansetts and were impressed with the Pilgrim’s European-style militia drills.

    Second, the French fought the British, and then the British fought the Americans — various tribes associating with the various combatants, and with first the French and then the British abandoning their Indian allies when they left. Conversely, the Indians associated with the victorious Americans were welcomed into their communities and largely intermarried into them.

    The most bitter wars were French versus English — and there were both language and religious differences, the French being Catholic and the English being Protestant. (Case in point, Father John Baptst in Ellsworth, ME.)

    Third, a lot of English girls were kidnapped as sex slaves — this was how a young man obtained his bride — and a lot of girls from Massachussetts and Maine wound up in Quebec, often bearing children up there. Many later came back, often without their children.

    Fourth, in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, Federal policy was to presume that anyone living on an Indian reservation was an Indian. This wasn’t always true, people fleeing the law or other obligations were often permitted to live there and hence were listed as “Indians” even though they weren’t. (This is an issue with “Indian” gambling.)

    So let’s take the case of the Pocomtuc remains in Deerfield. Who has the legitim’t tate right to speak for them — the peoples who exterminated them in genocidal wars?

    And how about Indian remains in general — who are their legitimate (biological) decedents? For all the reasons I have stated above, we really don’t know.

    And I believe that is why the tribes refuse to participate in genetic testing — it likely will show that their DNA is much more widely dispersed throughout the population than they claim it is, that they really are not as a unique ethnic population as they’d have us believe. Nor, I suspect, would we find them as unique an ethnic population as they’d like us to believe they were, not with centuries of intermarriage.

    1. The related problem is in states such as Maine which mandate the teaching of “Indian” history in their K-12 schools.

      The history of which Indians, as interpreted by whom?

      The end result is that the organized (recognized) tribes claim that they “own” this history and hence have an exclusive right to teach it, as they see fit. This is not ownership of artifacts, personal property to which one could conceivably claim an inherited ownership right to, but history itself.

      Giving the people who lost the war not a voice but sole exclusive voice to teach about the war?!? That’s like letting the Daughters of the Confederacy being the sole voice about the Civil War…

      For example, there were unprovoked attacks on Kittery and York Maine, with the 100 people not murdered instead being kidnapped and taken up to Quebec. What is now Maine was completely abandoned after this.

      We’re supposed to let the French/Catholic tribes that perpetrated this genocide to be the sole persons permitted to teach it?

      Not that their voices shouldn’t be included, but they should be the sole voice?

  3. I would be interested in reading what aboriginal people think of leaving their pasts unknown, except as described by oral histories and religious myths. I’ll wager many of the objections to this book come from non-native academics who have decided to speak for all aboriginals rather than letting communities decide for themselves how anthropologists study the remains of their ancestors.

    Up here in Canada there was vociferous objection to adding capacity to an existing oil pipeline passing through tribal lands. All of the elected leaders of the bands agreed to permit the expansion in exchange for work and long-term royalties from the pipeline. Opposition came from a handful of indigenous people who claimed stewardship of the land.

    They were followed by climate change activists (mostly non-native) who exploited the dissent and claimed moral authority over the use of tribal lands. The tribes whose land the pipeline already runs through wanted the project to happen but were effectively shut down by mostly white protestors and our compliant media.

    I doubt the opponents of the book really know or care about the diversity of aboriginal opinions on the matter. They just want people to adhere to their ideologies.

      1. “Minding the Campus hopes to change that by fostering a new climate of opinion that favors civil and honest engagement of all ideas, offering an engaged debate for readers concerned with the state of the modern university and the society it serves.”

        I doubt very much that posting “an imbecile of a President…” serves the supposed “civil” debate mandated by this website/forum, let alone has any relevance to the article by Weiss, no matter how blindly conservative the original subject matter is.

        https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/declaration-on-the-rights-of-indigenous-peoples.html

        Article 12 [page 12]
        1. Indigenous peoples have the right to manifest,
        practise, develop and teach their spiritual and
        religious traditions, customs and ceremonies;
        the right to maintain, protect, and have access
        in privacy to their religious and cultural sites;
        the right to the use and control of their ceremonial objects;
        and the right to the repatriation of their human remains.
        2. States shall seek to enable the access and/or
        repatriation of ceremonial objects and human
        remains in their possession through fair, transparent
        and effective mechanisms developed in
        conjunction with indigenous peoples concerned.

        We are anthropologists first and foremost, and ignoring the cultural beliefs of other peoples is anathema to our discipline. If you do not believe that, you should not be an anthropologist. Engagement with other cultures in research activities (and there are ample examples this works) will go a long way to closing the gap that Weiss continues to slam wedges into.

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