I spent Saturday morning on the reservation of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. I parked near the massive casino, the engine powering the housing boom in evidence all around the reservation. Many of the spacious homes, mostly typical mcmansions like those dotting any suburban gated community, were still works-in-progress . Our meeting was held in the community center, itself a well-appointed facility with a cheerful outdoor children’s playground and an impressively large scale.
I was there for a conference, and I was almost certainly the person in the room who knew least about matters Native American. My task was to moderate and comment on a panel on evidence issues that arise under NAGPRA – a statute I had never heard of until recently, which stands for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act – and, as the name suggests, regulates the repatriation of those remains and funerary objects presently in the hands of museums, universities and other institutions that receive federal funds, if they are found to be ‘culturally affiliated’ with particular native American groups.
NAGPRA says that in determining whether cultural affiliation has been established by a preponderance of the evidence, many kinds of evidence should be considered, including: “geographical, kinship, biological, archeological, linguistic, folklore, oral tradition, historial evidence, or other information or expert opinion.” But NAGPRA provides no further insight about how these various kinds of evidence should be aggregated or compared.
You can probably already see where this is going. What happens when the evidence conflicts? What happens when the biological evidence points in one direction and the oral histories of the native people point in another? Whose truths count, and why?