To the editor, The Columbus Dispatch
The Ohio Archaeological Council (OAC) is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote the advancement of archaeology in Ohio through research, education, and consultation with government agencies and the public. We have followed with interest the recent series of letters (11/12 and 11/21) and a Dispatch editorial (11/22) regarding Native American human remains and associated funerary objects in the care of the Ohio Historical Society (OHS). The Native American Alliance of Ohio considers the scientific study of these materials to be "racist" and calls on OHS to "return the human remains and grave goods to Ohio Native Americans for respectful reburial." We do not believe such an action is appropriate or legal.
The OAC supports the intent of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA); to allow lineal descendants and culturally related federally recognized Indian tribes to claim the remains of their ancestors for culturally appropriate treatment, which may or may not include reburial. NAGPRA permits the repatriation of human remains and associated funerary objects when claimants establish a cultural relationship between themselves and the remains. Regulations concerning culturally unaffiliated human remains, those that cannot be linked to a family or modern Indian tribe, have not been finalized by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Human remains that are thousands of years old are not considered Native American for the purposes of NAGPRA, and are excluded from consideration for repatriation under this law. This makes sense. For example, studies of DNA from 2,000-year-old human remains recovered from a mound in Ross County and preserved by the OHS found biological relationships to Indian tribes as culturally diverse and geographically separated as the Apache in the southwest, the Micmac in the far northeast, the Yakama in the far northwest, and the Ojibwe of the Great Lakes region. To whom then would these remains be returned? Human remains of such antiquity are part of a broader human story and should be retained for scientific study and educational purposes.
The Dispatch stated that Rachel Tooker of the OHS said that when the regulations dealing with culturally unaffiliated remains are approved "the remains can be repatriated relatively quickly." If this accurately represents the position of the OHS, then the OAC is deeply concerned. We are even more concerned at the Dispatch's position that if the federal guidelines are not approved within the next year, OHS should begin working with people who may not be culturally affiliated with the human remains and associated funerary objects "to work out a plan for responsibly returning the remains."
Human remains are invaluable sources of information on biological, medical, and cultural aspects of human history. The funerary objects accompanying some ancient burials provide our only window onto the highest artistic achievements of these cultures. We trust that OHS will take its obligation to history seriously and protect the legacy of all Ohioans from an ill-considered and overly hasty repatriation that would result in the destruction of valuable scientific and cultural information. Returning human remains to people with no demonstrable connection to them would be irresponsible; and to do so in the absence of the federal regulations that are being written to deal with such cases could be illegal.
Lynn Simonelli, President
The Ohio Archaeological Council