Hey Caitlin, I just have a random question for you. What do you think is the most important Archaeological finding for the Native American people?
Thanks for your question! I’m going to assume you mean Native American in the US-sense, as opposed to meaning all of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Even then it’s difficult to pinpoint one important discovery for all Native Americans, as they are comprised of many different groups. In terms of meaningful archaeology for Native American people in general, I’d have to say the Kennewick Man.
Kennewick Man is a 9000 year old Paleoindian skeleton discovered in Washington State by archaeologists in 1996, and is the most complete skeleton found dating to this period. The skeleton was discovered a few years after the passing of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, which provided guidelines and protocol for the repatriation of cultural artifacts and human remains to Native Americans who could prove a cultural or familial connection. NAGPRA was and remains very controversial, with many people having strong feelings for or against it. Archaeologists tend to be afraid that the Native Americans will claim everything and leave nothing for museums or research, while Native Americans tend to fear that archaeologists will refuse to repatriate anything and mistreat their cultural artifacts. The truth is that the implementation of NAGPRA often lies in the middle-ground, and the case of Kennewick Man became the high profile target for the debate.
In order to implement NAGPRA protocol, Native Americans need to prove affiliation according to government requirements. The use of non-Native criteria to determine repatriation is also controversial and worth exploring, but we won’t go down that road right now. To many archaeologists, including myself, the age of Kennewick Man means that he cannot be affiliated to any one tribal group. To many Native Americans, the religious belief that native people have lived in this area since the dawn of time means that the Kennewick Man belongs to them and should not be studied.
The discovery of the Kennewick Man sparked a lot of debate surrounding repatriation which really seek to answer the question: who owns the past? Do indigenous peoples automatically deserve to have artifacts and human remains repatriated simply because they live in the area of discovery, even if there is no evidence of any cultural tie? Does the NAGPRA system work? Is it ethical to impose a native identity on someone who died 9000 years ago in what was likely a very different culture? Is it ethical to study human remains at all?
Recent genetic research has indicated that while Kennewick Man cannot be linked to any tribal group, he is more related to Native Americans than any other people. Plans are now in place to rebury the skeleton, although there is still an ongoing effort to determine which tribe should claim ownership as the genetics are inconclusive.
Kennewick Man is a great chance to explore a lot of important issues related to Native American Archaeology. It’s important to keep in mind when discussing this to explore both sides and not jump to the side of the archaeologists or the tribal representatives in the hope of being a good scientist or good ally. The legal, ethical, scientific, and spiritual dimensions all reach far beyond the one case of the Kennewick Man to really impact all archaeology, which is why I think it is one of the most important finds in Native American archaeology.