Monday, November 26, 2012

"These Are Our Bones": NAGPRA and the NYC African Burial Ground

For any cultural or ethnic group the ability to bury the dead, remember them and to hold sacred the places of inhumation is an integral part of society. Two groups, Native Americans and African Americans have been unable to control or protect the remains of their ancestors and their burial grounds because of a historically marginalized place in American society. African Americans have had to deal with the historical and racial legacy of slavery and many of their burial grounds have not been accorded the sacred status that cemeteries of other groups have been given. Many African cemeteries, especially those from the era of slavery, have not been preserved, neither physically nor in documentation. In addition, consistent segregation in years since the end of slavery have prevented African Americans from having real control over decisions regarding the developments of land that had historically been used for burial. Another group, Native Americans, have also had similar problems in controlling how their burial places and remains are treated. Many have seen their ancestors exhumed and used for scientific study by anthropologists as examples of primitive societies.

However, over the last thirty years both groups have managed to wrest back a degree of control over their sacred burial places through several means. First, and most importantly, both groups have actively fought for the right to control their sacred places and the remains of their ancestors buried their. They have also managed to open up a dialogue with anthropologists that has forced that group to take into account the views of the groups that claim a connection to burial places that are being excavated, taking away the cart blanch that previous generations of anthropologists enjoyed when working on Native American or African American cemeteries. Finally, two highly publicized events in the early 1990s have forced the legal and academic recognition of the need to allow both groups to control what happens to their human remains and the places in which they have been laid to rest. In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act with forced all museums with federal funding to return Native American remains while also protecting graves on federal land from being excavated indiscriminately. In 1992, the NYC African Burial ground was rediscovered and efforts by the local and nationwide black community forced the cessation of development and its designation as a national monument.

 Though both groups have made incredible strides, their achievements have not come without controversy, especially in their relationships anthropologists. In order to understand how the two communities have have succeeded protecting their cemeteries and how this has affected the field of anthropology, several questions must be asked and answered. The first, most obvious question is how have both groups managed to force these changes that were, and are so, desperately needed? Did both groups have more success lobbying the federal government or did they achieve success through negotiations with anthropologists. Also and important issue is how divisive the issue has been for both groups. While many participants felt that excavation is a disrespectful practice, some Native Americans and African Americans feel that archaeological investigation is a important way to learn about their people history and preserve their culture. Finally, the impact these changes have had on the fields of anthropology and archaeology must be considered. How has this hampered archaeological and ethnographic excavation and how has it forced professionals to engage more with the present day communities they are investigating?

(Smithsonian Museum of Natural History-

These questions seek to answer how both Native Americans and African Americans have begun to protect their sacred burial places, but is also part of larger issue.  Many members of both communities see archaeologists and anthropologists as extensions of a colonial policy that stretches back centuries. Therefore, when looking at these issues and examining how things changed it must be viewed as an attempt by both groups reassert their cultural identity and history in the face of the colonial process that marginalized them. By moving to protect their cemeteries  they are preventing further colonial exploitation of their physical remains. Many Native Americans and African Americans see the display of their skeletons and funeral goods in museums as a colonial action meant to index their inferiority and defeat as a people. Their resistance to these processes is a declaration of their cultural and historical status and attempt to bring their invisible role in American history out into the open.

(NYC African Burial Ground Memorial-

Both NAGPRA and the NYC Burial Ground events were results of both communities taking action in reclaiming control over their cemeteries and their remains. Though an important achievement for both communities, it has not been without controversy. Anthropologists have argued that NAGPRA and similar laws prevent needed research on past and fading cultures, while it has caused deep divisions within the communities themselves, with some members believing that research should continue and others attempting to block additional study and excavation claiming it as disrespectful to their ancestors and beliefs.

References and Further Reading

Biolsi, Thomas and Larry J. Zimmerman. 1997. Indians and Anthropologists. University of Arizona Press. Tuscon.

Deloria, Vine. 1969. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. Macmillan. New York.

The New York African Burial Ground: Unearthing the African Presence in Colonial New York. 2009.  Howard University Press. Washington D.C.


  1. Interesting post, Matt. You should definitely examine the politics surrounding the excavation and acknowledgement of the African Burial Ground. This is a really interesting topic especially when combined with a study of the history of NAGPRA. It's especially interesting that you mention the arguments which state the importance of continued research on "pas and fading cultures" as this was the same justification for salvage anthropology in the 1800s which led to the need to enact legislation like NAGPRA and the NMAI Act.

  2. It might be interesting to further explore the act of silencing parts of physical history in this context. Why was this burial ground not a part of the "official" historical record? How could 15,000 - 20,000 remains be "forgotten"?

  3. I am a bit concerned that in writing about both the NAGRA and the NYC African Burial Ground you might be stretched a bit thin (especially due spatial limitations). Unless there is a very strong thesis argument that connects the two (aside from the obvious parallel stories, timeline, and challenges) I would respectfully suggest narrowing your focus to just one of the groups.

    "First, and most importantly, both groups have actively fought for the right to control their sacred places and the remains of their ancestors buried their." How was this accomplished? what tactics were employed?

    "They have also managed to open up a dialogue with anthropologists..." How? This is of particular interest.

    "the them to the tribes that claimed them" how were the objects reclaimed? is it at all similar to what happened with the land rights act in Australia? If so, the idea of the anthropological imagining of tradition being used as a rubric by which to judge and evaluate is one thing that could be looked at in more depth. Elizabeth povinelli's book would be of some help: The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism.

    To me the most interesting aspect--i am in agreement with Grace-- is that the mass grave "disappeared from maps and official histories of New York City in the early nineteenth century." Can you trace this through historical records? If so, it would make for one amazing paper in my opinion.


  4. You could include the involvement of the descendant communities during the African burial ground excavations and in the construction of the monument. There documentation on that is fairly easy to find. It could prove to be useful when investigating the descendants and communities' culture and identity.

    Additionally, the history if the African burial ground's discovery is interesting to think about in light of your discussion on disappearance.