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.