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Chiefs resolve to bring all ancestors home

Maine 'guidelines' on NAGPRA limit cultural affiliation to 1,000 years

INDIAN ISLAND, Maine - The Wabanaki Council of Chiefs adopted a resolution supporting the repatriation of all ancestors and their funerary objects found in the state of Maine to the Wabanaki tribes, and the protection of their ancestors' ''spiritual repose.''

The resolution was adopted unanimously by the Council of Chiefs, representing the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, Micmac and Abenaki tribes from Maine and eastern Canada, which convened at Indian Island for the annual conference June 21 - 29.

The resolution is in counterpoint to the state's 1993 guidelines on the implementation of the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The guidelines limit the Wabanaki tribes' claims of cultural affiliation to ancestors' remains dating back only 1,000 years.

Elements of the resolution confirm that the four Maine tribes - Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Maliseet and Micmac - have a shared group identity and are culturally and biologically affiliated with Native people buried in Maine since ''time immemorial.'' It affirms their belief that the excavation and removal of the ancestors' remains and their funerary objects has disturbed their ancestors' spiritual well-being and journey. And it states their belief that ''to study human beings without their permission or permission of their descendants is a violation of their basic human rights.''

The resolution supports the repatriation of all ancestors and their objects ''to be returned to their spiritual repose in accordance with our traditional religious practices.''

A research project by Bonnie Newsom, the Penobscots' tribal historic preservation officer and a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Massachusetts - Amherst, led the confederacy to adopt the resolution.

The Maine Historic Preservation Office has no jurisdiction under NAGPRA because it is a federal law, Newsom said during a PowerPoint presentation at the conference. Nevertheless, the state developed guidelines that limit the tribes' claims of cultural affiliation to 1,000 years, even though evidence of the Wabanaki peoples' presence in the area dates back more than 10,000 years.

Cultural affiliation under NAGPRA means there is a relationship of shared group identity that can reasonably be traced historically or prehistorically between members of a present-day Indian tribe and an identifiable earlier group.

So Newsom set out on a project to research the anthropologists and discover how they had arrived at the 1,000-year cutoff date. The questions to be explored were: How did the guidelines evolve? What was the level of tribal consultation during the initial repatriation process? And what was the theoretical framework used by the Maine archaeologists who contributed to the guidelines? As part of the research, Newsom interviewed eight archaeologists affiliated with the state or state universities.

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She discovered that the 1,000-year cutoff date for cultural affiliation was arbitrary.

''Every archaeologist that I interviewed had a different opinion on how tribes should be culturally affiliated in Maine. What happened was they came together and came up with this united front and said, 'We can't agree, but we're going to say 1,000 years.' While some would have cultural affiliation to 10,000 years and others to 500 years, in order to interact with the communities, in order to work within the boundaries of this law, they said, 'We've got to come together on this so we're going to make it 1,000 years.'''

Another key finding was that most of the archaeologists thought the collective approach of the Maine tribes in repatriation efforts worked well, even though NAGPRA stipulates remains must be returned to an individual tribe.

''There's no intertribal conflict here in Maine about whose ancestors they are. The tribes have come together and they do this in a way that is collective and in the spirit of a shared group identity, which is what we are claiming.''

In addition to the 1,000-year cultural affiliation cutoff date, the state guidelines also impose geographic boundaries linking individual tribes to specific areas of the state.

''You can see by the map who's notified, so if remains are found in central Maine, say a Wal-Mart's going up, the Penobscots get notified; in northern Maine it's the Micmacs and Maliseets, so without any sitting down at the table and negotiating and talking to the tribes, the state has determined that these are the areas where tribes will be contacted if remains are found,'' Newsom said.

The state didn't attribute western Maine areas to any tribes, however; so if remains are found there, none of the tribes are notified. Instead, the information is published in the Federal Register.

Newsom emphasized that the participants in her research project were ''very open and encouraging'' about her project. She plans next to interview Wabanaki people and compare their side of the story with what the archaeologists have said, and complete a literature review to see how other tribes across the country are dealing with the cultural affiliation issue.

The Maine State Historical Preservation Office is open to reviewing the guidelines, Newsom said.

''My hope is to make some recommendations that they'll adopt and start using, at least a better approach to determining cultural affiliation than what they've been using so far.''