- Voicing the BonesHeid Erdrich’s Poetry and the Discourse of nagpra
In fall 2010 the journal Museum Anthropology published a special issue focused on the legacy of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (nagpra) on the occasion of its twentieth anniversary. This issue, edited by Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Stephen Nash, represents a kind of stocktaking in the field of anthropology and archaeology, and specifically museum anthropology—a field that many proclaimed would be decimated or destroyed by nagpra’s enactment. The journal issue shows a range of the discourse around nagpra, including essays that argue for the value of anthropology and those that celebrate the repatriation of items long held by museums. Several authors express the idea that objects held by museums may be thought of and treated as living beings—a sea change from twenty years ago, when such beliefs were dismissed as superstitious and unscientific. Vine Deloria described this thinking in an article on religious freedom: “the attitude of federal employees and social scientists was that there is no evidence that we have any relationship to the departed, once bodily functions cease. Consequently, in their view, any belief or experience relating to the dead or to spirits of the dead is wholly superstitious” (176, original emphasis). In the twenty years since nagpra’s passing, the field of museum anthropology has shifted, and in some museums, as the Fall 2010 articles show, sacred objects and human remains are treated in ways that are culturally appropriate.
But the question persists: ought these objects to be kept in museums? This question resonates in the last piece in the 2010 journal issue, a selection of five poems and a brief introductory statement from the 2008 collection National Monuments, by Heid E. Erdrich. These last words of the journal do the work of facilitating change in the readers’ ways of thinking. [End Page 1] Traditionally, fields such as anthropology, archaeology, science, and history have treated Native people as objects to be studied, manipulated, and narrated. But this structure—created by museums and other Western institutions of knowledge—is disrupted by Erdrich’s poetry. Through engaging in language play, through invoking the emotions around repatriation, and through a literary strategy I call “voicing the bones,” Erdrich’s poetry instead posits that sacred objects, human remains, and Native people are speaking subjects, alive and feeling and worthy of empathy and respect. In a journal whose readers engage frequently with the issue of repatriation, Erdrich’s poetry goes beyond the conflict between museums and Native people; it helps readers hear the voices of the bones themselves. This voicing also calls attention to the ways in which the practices of science still exploit Native people, and to the questions that remain in the nagpra age, among them: can non-Native people live up to their humanity by recognizing the humanity of Native people?
While it is standard practice for such a journal to print articles that represent a wide range of thinking, it is unusual to include poetry in an anthropology journal.1 The poems become another voice in the discourse of repatriation and offer ideas about the place of literary art in discussions of national policy involving Native people. In addition to bringing a new kind of language to the nagpra arena, through “voicing the bones,” Erdrich’s poetry makes an important intervention that invites the reader to grant humanity and personhood to what might otherwise be considered “things.” These poems and their speaking subjects intervene in nagpra discourse by balancing the colonialist rhetorics of science and artifact collection. The poems do the work—unfinished by the legislation—of turning objects into beings; they thereby reverse the work of colonialist rhetoric in science and academia that has turned humans—and, specifically, Native people—into objects to be collected, sold, studied, and narrated. Through this voice, Erdrich makes change happen, makes change begin.
a theory of speaking: writing as transformation
In her essay “The Story of America: A Tribalography,” LeAnne Howe draws on the Choctaw concept that giving breath to something can make it happen, that speaking about something can give life to it by speaking it [End Page...