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  • In the Smaller Scope of Conscience: The Struggle for National Repatriation Legislation, 1986–1990 by C. Timothy McKeown
  • Steve Russell
In the Smaller Scope of Conscience: The Struggle for National Repatriation Legislation, 1986–1990. By C. Timothy McKeown. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012. xv + 270 pp. Illustrations, photographs, notes, index. $55.00 cloth.

C. Timothy “Tim” McKeown has been the “go to” person in the federal government for issues involving the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, seen by all sides in the contentious nagpra implementation issues as a straight shooter, an anthropologist with credibility among his peers and among Indians. McKeown will no doubt have stories to tell about nagpra when it hit the ground, but for now he has produced a masterful history of how nagpra came to be.

McKeown’s choice of 1986 as a starting point makes sense because of his focus on Congress. His opening narrative hook explores William Tallbull’s emotional discovery of a pipe sacred to his Northern Cheyenne Dog Soldier Society in a drawer in the Smithsonian. I shall not divulge where that narrative goes, other than to say it is worth the journey. Because of McKeown’s chosen starting date, there is no mention of Maria Pearson’s historic confrontation with the Iowa state government over the differing treatment of white and Indian burials, a confrontation that led to the first state- level repatriation legislation 10 years before McKeown’s nagpra narrative begins.

While McKeown’s timeframe may be narrow, he plows it deeply and thoroughly. He draws the necessary distinction between the term of art “legislative history,” which draws on limited and conventional sources, and a history of legislation, which McKeown has written in seven densely packed and fully documented chapters. In this dispassionate narrative, the players are allowed to tell their own stories in their own words, going far beyond the limitations of legislative history. Finally, in chapter 8, he offers a clear outline of how policymakers can use nagpra as it was intended to be used.

Those of us who have worked in the legislative process will readily recognize the compromises that have to be made. A huge compromise in the nagpra process was the decision to exempt the Smithsonian, in the interest of stepping around the legislative firepower the Smithsonian could bring to bear, which supporters judged was sufficient to kill the bill.

A lengthy colloquy between Senators John McCain and Alan Simpson during a committee hearing on the implications of nagpra would appear absurd without [End Page 104] understanding that Simpson was loading the legislative history with evidence of intent that would settle down opposition among “artifact collectors” in Wyoming. McCain, seeing the purpose, speaks lines far below the understanding of a man who had been working on the issue as long as he had. Those who like or at least find tolerable the compromises that found their way into nagpra will consider McCain, along with Senator Daniel Inouye and Representative Morris K. Udall, to be the heroes of the narrative on the public official side. Those who don’t like the result can at least understand the decision points and choose their own heroes and villains among a substantial cast of American Indian activists, anthropologists, museum directors, and others with interests that are, to put it kindly, less imbued with public purpose.

As McKeown points out in his summary, case law in the federal courts interpreting nagpra is sparse. The pace of implementation— inventory of collections, rule making, dispute resolution— has been glacial. As nagpra proceeds from concept to praxis, this book will be an invaluable aid to lawyers, museum authorities, scientists who hope to work with human remains or sacred objects, and tribal officials who hope to protect them.

Steve Russell
Department of Criminal Justice
Indiana University, Bloomington


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