- In the Smaller Scope of Conscience: The Struggle for National Repatriation Legislation, 1986-1990 by C. Timothy McKeown
The issue of the repatriation of Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony held in the nation's museums and repositories has been a contentious one for many years, and it remains so today. Some thirty years ago, Native Americans, museums, federal agencies, and archaeologists held vastly different perspectives on repatriation, with much opposition to the rights of American Indians to reclaim these remains and objects. Despite holding different positions on the matter, these groups came together—and with the support of Congress (especially Senators Daniel Inouye, Morris K. Udall, and John McCain)—were able to help craft and pass important repatriation legislation: the National Museum of the American Indian Act (NMAI) in 1989 and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990. McKeown's book is a very detailed and intriguing accounting of the history of the legislation leading up to the passage of these acts, the intent being to provide museums, federal agencies, lineal descendants, Indian tribes, Native Hawaiian organizations, and federal courts with a "thorough understanding of the legislative history of the two acts" (211). The title of the book is derived from a quote by Senator Udall regarding the passage of NAGPRA: "In the larger scope of history, this is a very small thing. In the smaller scope of conscience, it may be the biggest thing we have ever done" (169).
McKeown's book explores the issues leading up to the recognized need for repatriation legislation at the federal level for both the Smithsonian Institution—addressed by the NMAI—and for federal agencies and museums receiving federal funds, as addressed by NAGPRA. He then chronicles the struggles and actions over a four-year period of lobbying groups (American Indian groups such as the Native American Rights Fund, various museum lobbying organizations, and the Society for American Archaeology) in framing legislation and moving different bills through the legislative processes (i.e., the evolution of legislative texts over time), with timely insights from testimonies and interviews with key players in the process; discusses congressional hearings; as well as the reports from several Congresses on the need for, and the content of, the proposed legislation. [End Page 228]
The book concludes with a clear exposition of the legislative history's interpretive context and how the meaning of the statutory language of the NMAI and NAGPRA has affected federal agency formal rulemaking, the drafting of regulations, and the current adjudication of these laws. This is done by reviewing legislative intent (i.e., upon request, expeditiously repatriating human remains and associated funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony on request to American Indian and Native Hawaiian organizations). Especially useful is McKeown's consideration of issues of potential ambiguity in the laws, centered on who must comply with the statutes, who has standing to make a request, what items are covered by NMAI and NAGPRA, and what activities are required by federal agencies and museums holding human remains and specific kinds of funerary and sacred objects. Although both NMAI and NAGPRA were passed more than twenty years ago and the expeditious return of human remains and specific kinds of funerary and sacred objects was clearly the legislative intent, such has not been the case in my experience in working with the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma on repatriation cases. More than 130 museum facilities and some federal agencies hold Caddo human remains and objects that fall under NAGPRA, and consultation to complete the process in even one case can take years even with those museums and agencies that have embraced the spirit of NAGPRA and NMAI. The work of these vitally important pieces of legislation has really only started.