English Faculty Work


Voicing the Bones: Heid Erdrich's Poetry and the Discourse of NAGPRA

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Studies in American Indian Literatures

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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.



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