Leading lights of anthropology have submitted a plea to the Department of the Interior to change a rule concerning how museums and universities are to dispose of "culturally unaffiliated remains"—ancient bones and objects that cannot be linked to a particular tribe or group. Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act  (NAGPRA) passed in 1990, remains culturally affiliated with certain tribes must be returned to those tribes, who may then rebury them. But the new rule  goes further in requiring unaffiliated remains to be given to organizations whose tribal lands are nearby if they request it, or even to be given to other groups.
In a 17 May letter of protest to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, researchers say that the rule as written will cause "an incalculable loss to science" by permanently making such remains unavailable, and that the rule is "contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the law." The letter is signed by a who's who of 41 prominent archeaologists and anthropologists, all members of the National Academy of Sciences.
The original NAGPRA statute strove to balance the interests of science and Native Americans, and has spurred cooperation between them, says lead author Bruce Smith of the Smithsonian Institution. NAGPRA requires that museums and other repositories repatriate culturally affiliated remains and draw up a list of unaffiliated remains, but it is silent on what to do with the unaffiliated remains. The new rule requiring their disposal is "very bad news for science," Smith says. He adds that "the potential for overlapping and conflicting requests [for remains] is enormous."
Other groups have also written to protest the rule, with many comments submitted during the 3-year comment period and the most recent this month. But the scientific concerns were not addressed, says Smith, and the rule went into effect last Friday, 14 May. Smith says that the next steps for scientists may be to get Congress to look at the rule "to see if they think, as we do, that these regulations go far beyond what Congress intended and what Interior has a right to do as a regulatory agency." Or, they could go to court.