Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Open Forum essay in San Francisco Chronicle

Who owns the past?
Corbin Collins

If asked to enumerate their human rights, I doubt that most Americans would mention the right to control their dead. This is not because there is no such right; rather, the entitlement is so basic and universally extended that it is hardly recognized as a "right" by most people.

But suppose America were occupied by a foreign invader whose scientists pillaged our cemeteries and shipped our ancestors' remains home for research. I have little doubt that most Americans would regard this as a fundamental violation of human rights and dignity.
The United States, of course, allowed this to happen to its indigenous people. Although our government acknowledged almost every other group's spiritual and legal claim to their dead, for much of American history it did not extend this basic human entitlement to Native Americans. Huge quantities of their ancestral remains and sacred objects were shipped to research institutions such as UC Berkeley's Hearst Museum, which houses the second largest such collection in the nation. In 1990, Congress tried to redress the injustice by passing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which requires museums to repatriate human remains and sacred objects to tribes.

rest at