I recently published a book review of Pamela L. Geller’s noteworthy book Theorizing Bioarchaeology for the American Journal of Biological Anthropology. The book takes a broad approach to how social and critical theory can inform and improve our study of human remains. The book outlines how a bio-cultural perspective on humanity informed by considerations of practice, habitus, intersectionality, etc., allow us to highlight how power structures, including systemic violence and oppression in the past and present, frame our lived experiences and literally seep into our bones as readable traces of an often unwritten history. What I find particularly interesting is how Geller’s book demonstrates how this more theoretically informed bio-archaeology also leads us toward a more reflexive and ethical practice.
“A bioethos,” Geller writes “is only imaginable if we seek to consciously entangle—materiality and discourse, words and deeds, knowing and being and doing, science and humanities, fact and compassion.”
In the final chapters Geller proposes a way forward toward a more ethical bioarchaeology that in many ways builds on these theoretical insights. “It starts out firmly grounded in a North American experience discussing NAGPRA but evolves to consider race, class, gender, and religion, and to take on a range of emerging ethical conundrums for the discipline including the ethics of digitization and of ancient DNA, to the globalization of a discipline that still is very scattered in terms of priorities and values which makes the establishment of a broader code of ethics challenging. In the face of this complex challenge, Geller encourages us to engage in a proactive ethical practice of our discipline and develop moral normative practices in our interactions with the dead and the living. Drawing on an understanding of practice theory, she underlines the importance of understanding that these practices participate in forming our epistemological frames and ontological positions. She also embraces the entangled character of the responsibilities and accountabilities in our way (with reference to Karen Barad). “A bioethos,” Geller writes “is only imaginable if we seek to consciously entangle—materiality and discourse, words and deeds, knowing and being and doing, science and humanities, fact and compassion.”
A few weeks ago, The European Journal of Archaeology published three book reviews of the same book. That may seem a bit unusual, but the book in question, Repatriation and Erasing the Past by Elisabeth Weiss (a professor of anthropology at San José State University) and James W. Springer (a retired attorney and anthropologist), can without exaggeration be called one of the most controversial academic publications in recent years. It is important to realize is that this book is not a traditional piece of academic writing characterized by curious exploration and scholarly pursuit of a complex topic. Instead, it is an explicitly argumentative text that centers on the position that repatriation is is harmful to research. By building a case against repatriation, the authors seek confrontation with other stakeholders, not dialogue. The law that is scrutinized in the book is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) that since it was signed into US federal law in 1990 has transformed archaeological and museum practices in the United States and their relationships with Native American communities, most would say, for the better.
Given the impact of NAGPRA, and the ways in which it today is perceived as having had a positive transformative effect on research and museum practices, many archaeologists and biological anthropologists have felt the urge to go on the record about this book. I am one of them. The other two reviewers in this issue of EJA are Joe Watkins, archaeologist, member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and senior consultant with Archaeological and Cultural Education Consultants, Tucson, Arizona, and Chip Colwell, archaeologist, former senior curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and founding Editor-in-chief of SAPIENS. Both their reviews are important and insightful and provide thoughtful and initiated critique.
Colwell’s piece focuses on fact checking. In a scathing critique he argues that it is simply impossible to account for all the mistakes in the book. To illustrate his point, he selects a single page of the book – page 211, the first page of the volume’s conclusion, a choice he argues is “fair to the authors” since it sets out to summarize the central content and arguments of the book. His devastating scrutiny, that proceeds sentence by sentence of that one page, reveals a steady stream of mischaracterizations of NAGPRA and of academic sources and citations, misleading statements about the support of NAGRPA in the scientific community and its effect on research and collections. After noting that he is running out of words, he concludes: “Nearly every sentence of Repatriation and Erasing the Past is strewn with mischaracterizations, inaccuracies, misleading assertions, false claims, or hyperbole.”
Watkins starts his review with a very important personal anecdote:
“On December 18, 2020, the University of Florida Press sent a memorandum in an email to its publishing partners, including authors (such as I) who have published in the Press. The memo was an apology for ‘the pain this publication has caused. It was not our intent to publish a book that uses arguments and terminology associated with scientific racism’ (Gutierrez, 2020: 1). However, the Press noted that ‘to withdraw the publication at this point, as some have called for on social media and in other forums, is to attempt to hide it and to hope that simply retracting the book will cause the viewpoint to cease to exist.’”
Watkins, 2021 review of Weiss and Springer, European Journal of Archaeology 24(4), p. 571.
This anecdote is significant because it shows both how much debate this book immediately caused, but also – and this is especially important – the enigmatic position of the publisher. How come, I wonder, did an academic publisher not understand that this book was going to be problematic? The book has already been the subject of intense criticism (see for example Halcrow et al 2021; Kakaliouras 2021; Sassaman 2021; ), and calls have been made to cancel the authors, in particular when they have appeared at academic conferences, which in turn has spurred responses from the authors. While it can be argued that everybody has the right to their opinion, it does not automatically follow that they also are entitled to a book contract. So what did University of Florida Press really think would happen?
While I continue to wonder about the decision to publish this book, I still feel that it is more important to take on the issues it presents in open debate to demonstrate the flaws of their argument, rather than to silence its authors. This is especially important as I see this publication as part of a larger context of a reactionary backlash against progressive critical work in academia today, including postcolonial theory, critical race theory, and gender and sexuality studies, all under fire from conservative politicians and debaters across Europe and the US (see for example the development in the US, Denmark, Poland and Hungary). We note how the argument of protecting “academic quality” often is used to squash intellectual critical theory that challenges conservative political ideologies, and the same reasoning can be found in the book by Weiss and Springer where they systematically characterize repatriation as “an ideology.” In this sense, the book about repatriation in the US can be understood as a party in a much broader cultural war within and outside of the academy today.
In my review, which can be read in its entirety in the journal, I advance three critiques against the case mounted by the authors.
My first critique centres on the lack of reflexivity and power analysis, including a lack of recognition of the colonial history and the contemporary relationships between Native Americans and the academy. Today this must be viewed as extremely problematic coming from two anthropologists. The lack of awareness is revealed in a number of ways, including inflammatory statements, a lack of awareness in the use of nicknames given to archaeological finds, and in the unproblematized use of terms like “race,” and even in the uncommented use of photos from colonial contexts.
A second and related problem is the lack of respect for Native American culture. This attitude permeates the book and is communicated through the casual and systematic dismissal of positions about myths, traditional knowledge, Native American cosmology, and so on. The authors argue that science is more objective and rational, and this position can be defended (especially from their own position as radically anti-post- modern). But when they proceed to deduce that a scientific understanding of the world, including of Native American history, is more valuable for humanity, they introduce a judgement that must be tried on its own terms, but they do not explore this issue, probably because they never questioned it.
These two first foundational principles, imperfect as they are, constitute the foundation for the main thesis of the book: that repatriation is an ideology of victimization—born out of elitist postmodernism—and opposed to the ‘good’ represented in the value of the study of human remains. They argue that this ideology is ‘a modern, political construct and not a genuine reflection of historical Native American cultural beliefs.’ To support this argument they refer to the fact that also Native Americans at times handled human remains, in particular those of their enemies. Why this is relevant for the current debate is not explored or contextualized. The argument that repatriation is an ideology is repeated throughout the book, but never actually intellectually explored or supported.
But can it really be argued that repatriation is “an ideology”? An ideology can be defined as a set of opinions and ideas held by a group of people. But repatriation is not an idea, it is a practice that is regulated by law and the product of years of negotiation between stakeholders. This practice has affected archaeology, anthropology and museum practices. But just because something affects how you do things, or places responsibilities and boundaries on your actions, does not automatically give you the right to delegitimize it by calling it “ideological.” As research ethics have become more central to our professional practice, there are many practies and protocols that have been regulated, abandoned, and even condemned. In his review of the book Joe Watkins refers to the Nazi medical experiments and to the Tuskegee Study as examples of research practices that we, even though they may contain valuable information, no longer can use – for obvious ethical reasons. The study of human remains obtained through theft and structural, political, and physical violence, must be seen in the same way. What is perhaps the most striking conclusion after reading this book is that the authors simply do not understand that as a researcher you do not automatically have an uncontested right to any materials you find interesting to study.
Repatriation can and should be discussed, problematized, and interrogated, but if the goal is to ask interesting questions about knowledge production, research ethics, decision making and long-term consequences, then the way forward must be paved with mutual respect and interest. I am grateful that the conversations and debates about repatriation, and the practice and experience of engagement have built a solid enough foundation for these debates to go on, assuring – I hope – that this book will be just a small bump in the road forward. However, in this political moment, it is important that so many archaeologists and anthropologists have spoken out in critical terms about this book to not allow it to define our disciplines. The battles for democracy and ethics are never won. The frontiers must constantly be guarded and maintained.