Is Repatriation an Ideology? Reviews of “that book”, i.e. Weiss and Springer.

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.

“Nearly every sentence of Repatriation and Erasing the Past is strewn with mischaracterizations, inaccuracies, misleading assertions, false claims, or hyperbole.”

Colwell, 2021 review of Weiss and Springer, European Journal of Archaeology 24(4), p. 582

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. 

“Corridors of knowledge” by timtom.ch is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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.

…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.”

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. 

Featured image: “Old Books” by ShellyS is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/?ref=openverse&atype=rich

Real Bones. The Scandalous Case of the Remains of Katricia Africa.

Last week Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania both released apologies for their “insensitive, unprofessional and unacceptable” treatment of the bones belonging to an unidentified African American child who had perished in the flames of the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia in 1985. The apology refers to the use of charred remains of the child’s pelvis and femora in an online anthropology course entitled Real Bones: Adventures in Forensic Anthropology offered by Princeton University. The story was reported in an article in Billypenn, and also discussed in a Philadelphia Inquirer Op-ed, both published on April 21, 2021. The apology came only weeks after the release of a report that outlines a shift in the policy at the Penn Museum to repatriate African American remains from the infamous Morton collection. While the ethical challenges of the Morton collection (which was built and used to support a polygenist racist ideology) was well known, the debate about it reached a tipping point in the summer of 2020, as the world was protesting structural racism and the police violence that had killed George Floyd. The new direction taken by the museum signalled a desire to build better relationships with the local African American community and make amends for its problematic heritage. In the light of these progressive steps, the story about the bones from the MOVE bombings was shocking, and it seems to indicate just how much work the scientific community still has left to do.

“Community dedicates plaque of MOVE bombing” by joepiette2 is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

In the 1980s, The Philadelphia Police Department was engaged in a lingering conflict with the revolutionary black military separatist group MOVE, who lived in a communal row house on Osage Ave in West Philadelphia. On May 13th, 1985, a final and violent standoff ended with the police dropping a bomb on the house. 11 people died in the ensuing fire. Five of them were children. The Philadelphia Fire Department deliberately held back their response, and as a consequence the fire spread to engulf two city blocks, and over 60 homes were completely destroyed. Pictures from the blast reveal what looks like a war zone, and the attack has left a deep wound in Philadelphia’s African American community. In 2021, 36 years later, bones recovered from the MOVE house, and suspected to be those of 14 year old Katricia “Tree” Africa, resurface in an online anthropology class at Princeton. How is that possible?

When examining the chain of custody of the remains, several things stand out as problematic. The bones arrived to Penn already in 1985 when the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office asked anthropologists there to assist in their identification. The Medical Examiner’s Office wanted to know if the bones, recovered from the burned out MOVE house, could be the remains of Katricia Africa. The analysis was inconclusive. So far so good. It is common to seek out specialists for analysis, and it can be viewed as a service to the community at large. It is also to be expected that some specialist analyses are inconclusive. It is what happens next, or rather what does not happen, that is strange. The remains were never returned to the Medical Examiner’s Office once the analysis was terminated, but remained in the museum. Museums are often custodians of human remains from archaeological and historical contexts, some of them admittedly controversial or problematic. This is a well known and complex issue. Museums have a responsibility to curate and make these collections available for researchers and to the public, and many of them are currently grappling with the ethical considerations this responsibility entails. However, it is very unusual that contemporary specimens are incorporated into such collections, and certainly not without the explicit consent of the donor or their descendants. It is not the museums’ responsibility to accept to curate remains from local law enforcement, and usually, unidentified remains are cremated. Is it possible that the bones from the MOVE house were simply forgotten? Did they get lost in the chain of custody? Is this a case of neglect and poor procedure? Beyond questions of responsibility and professionalism, we must also ask how is it possible that the remains were not viewed as deeply problematic at the time? Even if it may have been difficult to locate surviving relatives, it is especially hard to understand how the anthropologists working in a museum in a city recovering from such a traumatic event did not make the connection between the remains and the needs of the community. That is troubling.

Then, somewhere along the way, things get even more complicated: the location of the bones becomes unclear. In her article in Billypenn, Maya Kassutto writes:

For decades, the bones were kept at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. A Penn Museum spokesperson said the remains have since been transferred to the care of researchers at Princeton — but an administrator at the New Jersey university was uncertain of their whereabouts. After this story published, a spokesperson said Princeton does not have them.

Could it be that a researcher simply took the remains from one place of employment to another? Here, it is difficult to shake the feeling that these practices are not very different from those of anthropologists in the 19th century who viewed scientific collections as their private property.

Kassutto continues:

“Princeton Anthropology Department Chair Carolyn Rouse wasn’t sure of the remains’ current location. Reached by phone, she said they might be in a lab run by Alan Mann, the now-retired professor who had been studying them with Janet Monge, curator of Penn Museum’s physical anthropology section.”

A lot has happened in the 36 years that have passed. Ethical standards, recommendations, and experiences with different perspectives have pushed anthropology to examine itself and develop more ethical practices and attitudes. Seen in that light, it is even more surprising that the remains of this unidentified child, violently killed by the police in Philadelphia in 1985, could be used in an online course that, according to its description, explicitly focuses on lost personhood (cases where remains cannot be identified due to their condition). What is so striking about this is the combination of a choice of words such as personhood, which signals an awareness of contemporary anthropological research questions and sensibilities, with such a casual neglect for the lived life of the human being that is represented by those very remains. It is difficult to imagine a case that more clearly, not only objectifies, but even dehumanises the remains of a child.

Ruth Benedict famously stated: “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human difference.” With those words in mind, it is discouraging to realise that anthropology still so often remains incapable of reforming itself from within and leading the charge against racism and structural violence, but instead only reacts to external pressure when the public lifts up the curtain to expose our dirty laundry. This must prompt us to take action and examine our practices and ethics at every juncture. It is not certain that the discipline will survive many more of these omissions, missteps and scandals.

You see, the thing about real bones is that they once were living people. If we want to continue to have the privilege of studying them, we must learn to respect them and those who care about them.

Photo credit banner: “Community dedicates plaque of MOVE bombing” by joepiette2 is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

Dead Bodies are Not Neutral Objects. Report from a conversation about dead bodies and their place in museums.


The old photograph shows a mother, looking straight at us, with a child in her lap. The small face of the child is turned upward and the mouth is sightly open, embodying that deep and completely relaxed baby sleep every parent learns to recognise as the body of the child suddenly becomes very heavy your arms. Only, this child is not sleeping. This child is dead. Photographs like this, a last memento of the child before burial, were common in the 19th century and are still made today (although today the practice of taking and showing these photos is no longer as public, nor is it as socially acceptable). Photographs like this remind us that dead bodies are not neutral objects, and that separating from them can be emotional, painful and problematic. Photographs like this also remind us of how our attitudes to the dead are culturally shaped and experienced. Photographs like this can help us untangle why some people feel that it is problematic to keep human remains in museums.

“The body of the dead, is something onto which people project meaning and emotion, and it is culturally varying how that projection happens and at what stage that projection changes. So when we talk about repatriation and reburial, what in the eyes of an archaeologist or a biological anthropologist may be material for research may still very well be perceived by other stakeholders as an individual to which they owe the duties of a proper burial.”

This fundamental realisation was one point of departure for a K-samtal – a structured conversation – on the topic of repatriation organised by The Swedish National Heritage Board on Dec 18th 2020 and led by Kicki Eldh and Ingela Chef Holmberg. The conversation was part of a continuing effort to support Swedish Museums in their work to develop policies and practices for curation and repatriation that live up to “an exemplary international standard.” Part of this effort has also been the development of support documents for the care for human remains in museum collections and in how to handle repatriation cases.

The conversation between Estelle Lazer (University of Sydney), and Liv Nilsson Stutz (me), was led by Kicki Eldh (for a sound file of the full conversation in English, please click here) and drew on international examples to unpack the complex issues of repatriation, indigenous rights, identity politics, the history of science, colonialism and research. The conversation came to circle back to questions such as “What does it mean to keep to an exemplary standard?”; “What can we learn from international experiences?”; and “What theoretical inquiries can help us problematize the issue, and how can we move from academic discourse to action and solutions?

Estelle Lazer shared her experiences from both Australia and Pompeii, and I drew on my work studying and analysing the repatriation debate in the US and NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act)

“We need to stop thinking about repatriation as a problem to be solved and instead approach it as an opportunity to learn.”

Both Estelle and I agreed that while we can learn from the international experiences, there is not a golden standard that easily can be transferred from one cultural, historical and political context to another. Instead we must educate ourselves and approach the issue with flexibility. To aim for an exemplary standard must be to learn from experiences and competences, and work toward developing legal instruments that are at the same level as international standards, but that are also tailored to fit the Swedish context.

We must also learn how to be critical. Repatriation cases are not always unproblematic. When approaching these complex issues it is important to be aware of this. But first of all we need to become better listeners, because a successful repatriation is not a process that strives only for closure, but one that is approached as an opportunity for collaboration. In other words, we need to stop thinking about repatriation as a problem to be solved, and instead approach it as an opportunity to learn.

Liv Nilsson Stutz

Caption to figure: Mother with dead child, 19th century, probably American. Art Institute of Chicago, CCO Public Domain