by Joe Watkins


The interruption of land tenure, the suppression of native language, the view of the native as an inferior race, and the marginalization of the group as a whole describes not only the situation in the United States, but is common in the colonization of indigenous nations throughout the world.  These populations, generally "... politically weak, economically marginal, and culturally stigmatized members of the national societies that have overtaken them and their lands" (Dyck 1992:1), are flexing their political muscles concerning the protection of their heritage. 

As Agency Archaeologist for the Anadarko Agency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, I provide assistance to the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma, the Caddo, the Comanche, the Delaware, the Kiowa, the Fort Sill Apache, and the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes on archaeological issues.  Centered on the precept that, by protecting human remains on their lands, they can equally protect all other cultural resources therein, these tribes are developing their own programs to exercise more control over cultural resources on their lands, especially as a result of legislation such as the National Historic Preservation Act and NAGPRA, a situation mirrored in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Scandinavia. 


Relationships between First Nations of Canada and Canadian anthropologists are similar to that of American Indians and American anthropologists, and the practice of the discipline on both sides of the border share similar trajectories.  A detailed analysis of these relationships will not be presented here, but the reader is referred to At a Crossroads: Archaeology and First Peoples in Canada for a more contemporary discussion of the relationships.     

When three people hunting sheep in a remote corner of British Columbia discovered the frozen remains of a human in a melting glacier in Wilderness Park in British Columbia in August of 1999, a situation developed in sharp contrast to the situation between the American Indian leaders and American archaeologists over Kennewick.  Rather than requesting immediate reburial, elders from the Champagne and Aishihik Nations favored obtaining scientific information from the find.

The framework for the study of the adult male called Kwaday Dan Sinchi, the southern Tutchone words meaning "long‑ago person found", allowed Canadian government and tribal groups to set up a scientific advisory panel to evaluate research proposals for scientific studies with reburial of the individual by the end of 2000.

Bob Charlie, chief of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, notes that the archaeologists were respectful to the Nations' wishes: "Their willingness to cooperate has been quite pleasing to us. They have been very patient, because I'm sure they would have liked to jump ahead and plow ahead with it" (Brooke 1999).  Thus, archaeologists in this portion of Canada are cultivating a strong relationship with Canadian First Nations.


Hubert (1994:149‑156) provides a history of the relationships between Australian archaeologists and Australian Aboriginal populations, and outlined Aboriginal opposition to " ... the excavation of sacred sites, including burial sites, and the display and storage of Aboriginal skeletal remains in museums and university departments ..." (Hubert 1994: 149).  Mulvaney and Kamminga's more recent Prehistory of Australia (1999) offers only a brief discussion of the relationships of archaeologists and Aboriginal populations. 

Although the Commonwealth government assumed responsibility for Aboriginal affairs in 1967, administration was generally left to the separate States.  Basically, Australian federal law states that all remains pre‑1770 are by definition Aboriginal and must be controlled by Aboriginal authorities (Jones and Harris 1999:255). 

In 1984, the Australian Anthropological Association issued a policy supporting the reburial of post‑1788 remains to communities as well as the return of Aboriginal skeletal remains of known individuals.  The policy also stressed that all other Aboriginal skeletal remains are of scientific importance and should not be destroyed through reburial or cremation (Jones and Harris 1999:254).

But the repatriation of Aboriginal human remains in a situation similar to that at Kennewick put a strain on Australian anthropologists.  The remains of approximately 40 individuals who lived roughly 9,000 to 15,000 years ago were excavated from the edge of Kow Swamp reservoir between 1968 and 1972.  In August 1990, the Museum of Victoria presented the Kow Swamp Collection of human remains and associated grave goods to the Echuca Aboriginal Cooperative in August of 1990.   

Mulvaney decried the reburial of the material, noting "... the case merits record for its implications for intellectual freedom ... It is not simply the Kow Swamp relics which are at stake, but the future of past Aboriginal culture and the freedom of all peoples of any race to study it" (1991: 12).  But another Australian anthropologist, Colin Pardoe, noted: "Some have distinguished between more recent remains which Aborigines may control and the older remains which belong to the world. This denies the concept of full and unfettered Aboriginal ownership of the past" (Pardoe 1992: 133). 

New Zealand

Gareth Jones and Robin Harris (1998:255) note "Archeologists and anthropologists in New Zealand are facing the same ethical issues as have arisen in Australia, Britain, and the United States." 

With the passage of the Resource Management Act of 1991, it became necessary to take Maori interests under consideration in the development of all regional land uses and in the review of major economic and other developmental projects likely to impact Maori environmental interests (Morse 1997). 

As a result of land claims brought under the Treaty of Waitangi Act, the ethics involved in doing research both for and on the Maori came to be questioned.  E. T. Durie, a magistrate for the tribunals formed under the Treaty of Waitangi Act, raised nine issues passed on to him by researchers (Durie 1999) which relate directly to Maori control over information on the Maori, the rights of researchers to publish, and the use of written documents which might prove unflattering or detrimental to Maori land claims.  As with other indigenous groups throughout the world, the Maori are calling for full responsibility for the control and management of their cultural heritage (Jones and Harris 1998: 255). 


The Sami, once called "Lapplanders", are an indigenous people who live in the four separate countries of Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia.  They are thought to have originated somewhere in what is now northeastern Russia, (Olsson and Lewis 1995:148) with contact with the Vikings in the eighth or ninth century forcing them northward.  Later efforts by Denmark and Sweden to control the Sami resulted in three major responses: the emergence of a coast‑Sami culture based mainly on fishing and supplemented by agriculture; the emergence of an inland‑Sami culture where agriculture was supplemented by hunting, fishing, and some reindeer herding; and a nomadic Sami culture drawn from both the coastal and inland Sami groups mainly occupied with taming, tending and herding reindeer (Olsson and Lewis 1995: 249). 

Marjut and Pekka Aikio (1989:127‑128) document the paucity of Sami archaeology and the desire by some Sami archaeology students in Norway to halt archaeological excavations until "... the Sami archaeologists themselves can take over and perform this invaluable work" (Aikio and Aikio 1989: 128).  As part of an attempt to involve the Sami of Sweden more in the process, a new Program of Sami Studies has been set up under the Department of Archaeology at the University of Umea in the hopes of  developing a new curriculum and graduate program integrating theory, method, and practice in archaeology utilizing a Sami cultural perspective. 


In the United States, Meighan argued that repatriation agreements "... assume all Indian remains of whatever age are the property of contemporary claimants and that it doesn't matter how old things are" (1992: 39).  Mulvaney in Australia feels that Australian "archaeologists support the return of remains from recent generations to local communities for reburial, because social and spiritual considerations outweigh other factors," but, for older remains, they "cannot be presumed to have shared the same cultural values or religious concepts" (1991: 16).  Pardoe in 1992 noted "Aboriginal demands for ownership and control of their heritage has been consistent for over a decade ...", but he also notes the conflict between archaeologists and Aborigines increases when "... Pleistocene remains (over 10,000 years old) have been slated for reburial" (p. 133). 

But indigenous populations are working from the idea that, once they can exercise control over their most important "resource" ‑‑ the remains of their ancestors ‑‑ they can begin to exercise control over all other aspects of their cultural remains.  As these populations develop their programs, archaeologists have two choices ‑‑ we can step away from them and let them develop their own programs, or we can step forward and help them develop programs beneficial to all of us. 

It is imperative that archaeologists examine their relationships with indigenous populations and strengthen them if they wish to continue working with the cultural remains of first nations throughout the world.  These relationships must become symbiotic, rather than parasitic, and must be based on the wishes and needs of the indigenous population rather than solely on the wishes and needs of the archaeologist. 

References cited:

Aikio, Marjut and Pekka Aikio  
1994 “A Chapter in the History of the Colonization of Sami Lands: the Forced Migration of Norwegian Reindeer Sami to Finland in the 1800s”: In Conflict in the Archaeology of Living Traditions. Edited by R. Layton, 116‑30. Routledge Press, New York.  
Brooke, James  
1999 “Lost Worlds Rediscovered as Canadian Glaciers Melt”. New York Times, October 5. On‑line article at, Keyword = Sinchi.   
Durie, Edward T.  
1999   “Ethics and Values”. On‑line article at 1999/39.html.  
Dyck Noel, editor  
1992    Indigenous Peoples and the Nation‑State: 'Fourth World' Politics in Canada, Australia, and Norway. Social and Economic Papers 14, Institute of Social and Economic Research, Memorial University of Newfoundland.  
Hubert Jane  
1994 “A Proper Place for the Dead: A Critical Review of the Reburial Issue.” In Conflict in the Archaeology of Living Traditions. Edited by R. Layton, 131‑166. Routledge Press, New York.  
Jones, D. Gareth and Robyn J Harris  
1999 Archaeological Human Remains. Current Anthropology 39(2):253264.  
Layton, Robert, editor  
1994 Conflict in the Archaeology of Living Traditions. Routledge, New York.  
Meighan, Clement  
1992 “Some Scholars’ Views on Reburial”. American Antiquity 57:704‑710.  
Morse, Brad  
1997 “Comparative Assessments of Indigenous Peoples in Australasia, Scandinavia, and North America”. Sovereignty Symposium X, 309‑344, Oklahoma Bar Association. Oklahoma City.  
Mulvaney, John  
1991 “Past regained, future lost. The Kow Swamp Pleistocene burials.” Antiquity 65:12‑21.  
Mulvaney, John and Johan Kamminga  
1999 Prehistory of Australia. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.  
Nicholas, George P. and Thomas D. Andrews, editors  
1997 At a Crossroads: Archaeology and First Peoples in Canada. Archaeology Press, Department of Archaeology, Simon Frazier University, Burnaby, B.C.  
Olsson, Sven E. and Dave Lewis  
1995 Welfare rules and indigenous rights: the Sami people and the Nordic welfare states. In Social Welfare with Indigenous Peoples. Edited by John Dixon and Robert P. Scheurell, pp. 141‑185. Routledge Press. New York and London.  
Pardoe, Colin  
1992  “Arches of Radii, Corridors of Power: Reflections on Current Archaeological Practice.” In Power, Knowledge, and Aborigines. Edited by Bain Attwood and John Arnold, 132‑41. La Trobe University Press, Bundoora, Victoria.