Manataka American Indian Council
Native American Spirituality Brochure
Landowners / Artifacts / Sacred Sites
Considerable attention has been given to legal obligations regarding sacred sites, artifacts and remains in recent years. This flurry of legislation came as the result of increased public consciousness arising from a single act, like that of Rosa Parks in the 1960s refusing to go to “the back of the bus.”
In 1976 Maria Pearson, a Yankton-Sioux living in Iowa, learned that a road crew had excavated a grave site, unearthing 26 Caucasian skeletons and one of an Indian woman. State officials reburied the white bones elsewhere but shipped the Indian remains to Iowa City for further study. "That's discrimination," said Pearson. "What made those white people not worth studying? The Indian has got to remain buried just like everyone else."
Arguing that the issue was a civil rights violation, Pearson went to Iowa's governor, and was rebuffed. She fought on, rallying a grassroots movement that led, in 1982, to the first state law requiring that public agencies return Native American remains to their affiliated tribes. Iowa's statute led in 1990 to congressional passage of The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) that provides a process for museums and federal agencies to return Native cultural items -- human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, etc. – to tribes, individuals and indigenous organizations. It bolsters the1988 Archaeological Resources Protection Act, giving stiff penalties for removing Native American objects from public lands.
According to Arizona Judge Sherry Hutt, speaking before the U.S. Senate in 1999, NAGPRA is "one of the most significant pieces of human rights legislation since the Bill of Rights." The legislation has excited over-reaction and been misconstrued by many, and it has yet to be fully settled in policy and procedure. But the intent is clear:
The law reinforces the idea that Native American sacred sites, religious objects and, most of all, human remains are worthy of respect. Whenever sacred sites, objects and remains are located, spiritual elders should be contacted, along with appropriate authorities. Indigenous Ceremonial Elders can help ensure they are treated in sacred manner.
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