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who owns knowledge?

index on censorship, autumn 2007

In May this year London's Natural History Museum returned the skeletons of 17 Aboriginal islanders to representatives of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre. The skeletons were part of the enormous collection of bones, skulls and other human remains that are housed in the vaults below the museum. Most people know of the Museum only through its dinosaur skeletons or the blue whale hanging in the mammal room. But the Museum is also a world-renowned research centre, and much of that research - into human evolution, human history and human disease - centres on its collection of human remains. In recent years, however, there has been a growing demand, particularly by indigenous groups, for the return of such remains, a demand that was given legal force by new legislation in 2005.

One such demand came from the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre. Last November, the Museum reluctantly acceded to the claim, even though, as the evolutionary anthropologist Robert Foley put it, 'There is no doubt that if these remains are destroyed, our knowledge of humanity will be diminished.' Scientists had nevertheless hoped to conduct DNA and other non-destructive tests on the bones before they were returned to be cremated, and hence lost forever. The Aboriginal Centre objected, however, to any form of testing on the bones and in January this year took out a court injunction preventing all scientific investigations. The Museum was eventually forced to return the bones without performing any tests upon them.

The battle over these 17 Aboriginal skeletons illustrates a growing tension that has developed in recent years between the demands of scientific rationality and the desires of cultural identity. At the heart of the debate is the issue of who owns knowledge. Museums and research institutions across the world house hundreds of thousands of bones, skulls and skeletons, largely collected over the past two hundred years, and often in unsavoury circumstances. In Britain there are around 61,000 remains in some 132 different collections, the largest of which is that of the Natural History Museum. For scientists, ongoing investigation of collections such as the Natural History Museum's is critical for understanding humanity's place in the world. For many within the source communities, however, such collections are tainted by the legacy of racism and colonialism, and scientific investigations of them are regarded as morally reprehensible.

The debate about the repatriation of human remains has been especially fierce in America, Australia and New Zealand, where guilt about the treatment of indigenous peoples - Native Americans, Aborigines and Maoris - runs deep. Museums in these countries have thrown open their storage rooms, and returned thousands of bones to indigenous communities for burial. In America, for instance, the Native American Grave Protection Act (NAGPRA), enacted in 1990, requires federally funded institutions to return human remains and objects found in Indian graves to their original owners. Any new remains or objects discovered on tribal lands cannot be examined without the consent of culturally affiliated tribes, who could demand their return. In the first decade after the law entered the statute book, over half a million sets of remains and artefacts were either returned or were in the process of being returned.

At first sight, the case for the repatriation of human remains seems unanswerable. After all, many of the remains were taken from native countries in acts often little short of graverobbing. The collection and measurement of such bones played an important part in the development of racial science and in the dehumanisation of 'inferior' peoples. Legislation such as NAGPRA is intended to be an act of restitution for the wrongs done to American Indians by scientists over the years. Throughout the 19th century, and for much of the 20th, anthropologists viewed American Indians, as they did most non-Western peoples, as objects to collect and rank, rather than people with beliefs, cultures and histories to understand. NAGPRA, the American anthropologist David Hurst Thomas suggests, redresses past wrongs by shifting the balance between science and Native American beliefs to ensure that 'no longer is the scientific position privileged'.

But digging more deeply, we can see that the issues are not as simple as that. For the battle over the bones is also a battle between those who believe in the possibility of universal knowledge and those who view truth as culturally constrained. Despite their dubious provenance, collections of human remains are key to scientific investigations, for they provide a fundamental source of information about human history and the human body. The destruction of such material through repatriation damages our ability to understand our past. As Robert Foley has put it, 'Destroy that record and we destroy large chunks of history, just as we would if we were to destroy libraries and books written in the past.'

Human remains do more than simply tell us about the past. They can also aid medical research and help refine the forensic sciences. In 1999 Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology repatriated the remains of more than 2,000 individuals to the Pecos and Jemez Pueblo tribes in New Mexico. The collection was of rare value because it was well preserved, large enough to be statistically significant, and demographically representative of a single population. Over the years, the bones had been examined by dozens of researchers studying everything from head injuries to the development of tooth cavities. Anthropologist Christopher Ruff used the collection to publish a landmark paper on osteoporosis. According to Ruff, the collection was 'an incredibly valuable resource', the data from which he will still be using 'for the next 30 years'. The bones, Ruff explains, provided 'a kind of pre-industrial baseline to compare to modern populations, which may suffer ailments that weren't so prevalent before the industrial era'. It is a resource that will now be denied to future researchers.

Irrespective of its impact on science, however, the argument for the repatriation is troubling because far from challenging colonialism and racism, it often resurrects racial ways of thinking about human groups, particularly in defining cultural affiliation or ownership. Where a skeleton is no more than a few generations old, and it is possible to trace a direct descendant, then there may be a rational basis to the demand from such descendants for the return of the bones. But when remains are hundreds, even thousands of years old, or when - as with the Tasmanian bones at the Natural History Museum - it is impossible to identity the original individual, what does it mean to establish ownership?

According to NAGPRA, the true owners of any ancient remains found on American soil are the federally recognised tribes that are 'culturally affiliated' to the group from which the ancestor came. NAGPRA defines 'cultural affiliation' as 'a relationship of shared group identity which can be reasonably traced historically or prehistorically between a present day Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian and an identifiable earlier group'. But this notion of cultural continuity over hundreds or even thousands of years, and the belief that a contemporary group has a direct connection to bones or artifacts that are several thousand years old, is both disingenuous and dangerous. As the biological anthropologist Marta Lahr, director of Cambridge University's Duckworth Laboratory, puts it, 'Claims for repatriation are based on ideas of biological and cultural descent, but human populations are not bounded entities through time, and biological and cultural ancestral affiliation are fluid concepts - who are the descendents of our Saxon skeletons, or Iron Age or Norman ones?'

The case of 'Kennewick Man', a skeleton discovered in 1996 on the banks of the Columbia River, in Washington State in north-west America, illustrates very well the dangers of such Romantic notions of cultural ownership. The skeleton appeared to have more of a European than a Native American form, and anthropologists first thought that it must have the remains of a 19th century European settler. But embedded in the hip bone was a spear point 9000 years old - well before Europeans arrived in the New World. The question of who were the original peoples of the New World and where they had originally come from has been a controversial anthropological issue for decades. The discovery of Kennewick Man made it more controversial still. It was clear, though, that study of the skeleton would help thrown new light on the issue and perhaps settle some of the controversies.

Native Americans groups, however, refused to countenance any such study. They insisted however that Kennewick Man was one of their ancestors and hence definitely an Indian. 'Our oral history goes back 10,000 years', said Armand Minthorn, a leader of the Umatilla, a Washington-based tribe. 'We know how time began and how Indian people were created. They can say whatever they want, the scientists. They are being disrespectful.'

Minthorn's argument was backed by the law. NAGPRA describes as 'Native American' any remains more than 500 years old - in other words anyone in the New World before Columbus arrived. Under the law, any such remains must be handed over to the local Indian tribe for reburial. Five tribes from the Washington region - Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce, Colville and Wanapum - demanded, therefore, that the bones of Kennewick Man be returned to them. They insisted, too, that there should be no scientific study of the bones.

The Army Corps of Engineers, on whose land the skeleton was discovered, agreed with the Indians and decided that the bones should be returned to the Umatilla for reburial at an unknown location. Almost immediately, eight anthropologists, who included the most distinguished scientists in their fields, filed a lawsuit to halt the Corps' actions, pleading that scientists should have a chance to study the bones. Kennewick Man, they pointed out, could provide invaluable scientific data that could transform our understanding of early American history. NAGPRA, they insisted, was not meant to protect 9000-year-old skeletons. They accused the Army Corps of arbitrary decision-making and undermining the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech, and safeguards the right to gather and receive information. If the skeleton was reburied, not just scientists, but the American public, would be deprived of potentially irreplaceable information about its own past.

Native American leaders in turn dismissed the anthropologists' demand to examine Kennewick Man scientifically. 'It's like looking at us like a bunch of rats and mice', retorted Jerry Meninick, vice-chairman of the tribal council of the Yakama Indian Nation. 'We feel offended to be classed in such a situation.' Another Indian spokesman, Marla Big Boy, Oglaka Lakota Attorney General for the Colville Confederated Tribes of eastern Washington suggested that the Kennewick Man case was simply the latest expression of scientific racism.

At the heart of the debate about Kennewick Man was the question of who owned the right to use the bones to tell the story of the first inhabitants of the Americas. In other words, who owned history? For many scientists, the idea that the bones belong to any one group was abhorrent. 'I explicitly assume that no living culture, religion, interest groups or biological population has any moral or legal right to the exclusive use or regulation of ancient human skeletons since all humans are members of a single species', argued Douglas Ubelaker, a bioarchaeologist from the Smithsonian Institute. 'Ancient skeletons are the remnants of unduplicable evolutionary events which all living and future peoples have the right to know about and understand. In other words, ancient human skeletons belong to everyone.' The facts, many scientists believe, should tell the story. 'Native American beliefs about the past and the dead certainly deserve respect, but they should not be allowed to dictate government policy on the investigation and interpretation of early American prehistory', wrote Robson Bonnichsen, one of the plaintiffs in the Kennewick Man court case, and Alan L. Schneider, the lawyer who defended the scientists. 'If a choice must be made among competing theories of human origins, primacy should be given to theories based on the scientific method. Only scientific theories are built on empirical evidence; only scientific theories can be adjusted or overturned.'

Scientists rejected, too, the idea that Kennewick Man could be 'culturally affiliated' to modern Native Americans. 'As a specialist in the prehistory of western North America', archaeologist Michael Moratto observes, 'I can assure you that no living society, native American or other, can credibly claim biologic or cultural affiliation with archaeological remains 93 centuries old. This time span represents nearly 500 generations. During this time, peoples entered the New World, moved extensively within it, evolved culturally, intermarried and sometimes died out.' There is therefore no 'substantive or legal merit' in culturally linking Kennewick Man with any group of modern Indians.

For many Native Americans and their academic supporters, on the other hand, the myths by which Indians live revealed why Kennewick Man belongs to them. 'If this individual is truly over 9,000 years old, that only substantiates our belief that he is Native American', claimed Armand Minthorn of the Umatilla tribe. 'From our oral histories, we know that our people have been part of this land since the beginning of time. We do not believe that our people migrated here from another continent, as the scientists do'. History is something given, not something to be studied. 'Some scientists say that if this individual is not studied further, we, as Indians, will be destroying evidence of our own history', Minthorn wrote. 'We already know our history. It is passed on to us through our elders and through our religious practices.'

These sentiments were not limited to Native American activists. One of America's foremost anthropologists, Jonathan Marks, suggested that the Kennewick Man debate highlighted 'scientists' belief they have a right - perhaps even a duty! - to delegitimise other peoples' ideas about who they are and where they came from'. This he called 'the problem of colonial genetics in a postcolonial age'. Marks condemned the way that 'self-righteous, self-interested, self-proclaimed and slightly paranoid advocates of science' often 'rewrite origin narratives and identities of other peoples on the basis of partial, ambiguous and dubiously interpreted evidence'.

This is a view of knowledge as culturally bound and of science as the product of specific peoples. When Marks complains about scientific accounts helping to 'delegitimise other peoples' ideas' and to 'rewrite origin narratives and identities of other peoples' he seems to be suggesting that science belongs to one culture (presumably modern western) and those 'ideas' and 'narratives' to other cultures. The importance of origins stories, Marks argues, is that they help define questions of 'morality, ultimate justice, good and evil, happiness and what lies beyond death' and in so doing they shape the identity of a culture and its relationship to the rest of the world. Origin stories, he argues, 'are culturally integrated to a far greater degree than science'. He worries that 'science's standard operating procedure is to take some aspect of new knowledge and to substitute it for whatever alternative existed before it - generally without looking for or dealing with the broader implications or cultural and symbolic connections'. Scientific truth, in other words, may not matter as much as social cohesion and cultural survival. This, of course, is the classic Romantic view of culture and knowledge: knowledge as culturally bound; culture as a bounded entity; an organic view of social cohesion ; the significance of identity to the survival of a culture and a people.

In the past, reactionaries argued that reason was confined to certain human groups while progressives believed that all humans had the capacity to reason. Today many argue that to believe that reason is universal is itself reactionary and demand the right, in the name of antiracism, for every culture to think differently. Sociologists Helen Watson-Verran and David Turnbull, writing in the prestigious Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, argue that no longer should 'Western "rationality" and "scientificity" be used as the benchmark by which other sciences be evaluated'. Rather, 'the ways of understanding the natural world that have been produced by different cultures and at different times should be compared as knowledge systems on an equal footing'. So, for leading Native American writer and activist Vine Deloria, 'The non-Western tribal equivalent of science is the oral tradition, the teachings that have been passed down from one generation to the next over uncounted centuries'.

Drawing on that oral tradition, Deloria rejects the theory of evolution, believes that Indians lived at the same time as dinosaurs, that mammoths and mastodons lived in America at the time the Pilgrims landed, that the Earth is not several billion years old as geologists believe but that Noah's Flood is a reality. He is no cranky, marginal figure. He was, until 2002, professor of history, law and political science at the University of Colorado. He remains someone with whom many serious scholars regularly collaborate. Deloria penned, for instance, the forward to Skull Wars, anthropologist David Hurst Thomas' acclaimed study of the Kennewick Man affair. Time magazine named him as one of the 11 most significant religious thinkers of the 20th century. The academic status of Deloria shows the consequences of a 'multicultural' view of science. Once the notion of objective knowledge is jettisoned, once science is seen as a local rather than a universal form of knowledge, once it is accepted that culturally diverse ways of understanding the natural world should all be regarded as valid forms of knowledge, once rationality itself is regarded as a form of racist violence, then mysticism and Creationism come to be taken seriously.

A very different understanding of the relationship between science and myth comes from Joallyn Archambault, Director of the American Indian Program at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, and a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. 'I am' she writes, 'personally familiar with Sioux religious and cultural traditions and I have great pride in my Indian heritage'. She has 'personally participated in all of the major traditional ceremonies appropriate for a Sioux woman of my age and position in life, including a vision quest and a Sun Dance'. In an affidavit to the judge considering the Kennewick Man case, she wrote that while 'I respect the traditional religious and cultural beliefs of my tribe and those of other tribes', such respect 'does not mean that we must accept all of those beliefs as invariably accurate statements of historic or scientific fact':

To do so would be contrary to commonsense and what we know about the world from other sources of knowledge. For example origin stories... vary widely from tribe to tribe. Depending upon the tribe, creation may be the work of Coyote, a bird, a first man, a turtle and so on. Even within the same tribe, traditional beliefs can include multiple creation stories. For example, three different creation stories were accepted in my father's tribe when I was a child... ordinary logic tells us that not all of these different stories or versions can be true, at least in a factual sense. And we should not expect them to be. The purpose of origin stories is to provide metaphysical, rather than historic or scientific, explanations... Like other forms of great literature they should be interpreted symbolically rather than literally.

For Archambault, 'the Kennewick skeleton should be made available for study so we can learn as much from it as possible. The past is important because it can help us to teach us who we are and how we fit into the world.' She adds that 'the anti-science and anti-intellectual arguments espoused by some Native American religious and political factions do not represent the views of all, or even the majority of, American Indians. Most American Indians are as interested about the past as other people. They want to know the truth about the past, and they should be entitled to do so.'

Knowledge, Archambault, suggests, is a public affair and the property of all. Identity on the other hand is a private matter. Traditional stories of a people's history may be important for cultural and symbolic reasons but there is no reason that science should defer them. American Indians, she argues, 'have as much right as anyone else to be exposed to different ideas and to make up their own minds about what they believe or do not believe'.

In 2005, after almost a decade of court battles, scientists finally won the right to investigate Kennewick Man. But while in this case the claims of science eventually won out, all too often scientific truth is forced to defer to cultural claims. Indeed, even with Kennewick Man, potential knowledge was destroyed in the name of cultural preservation. In April 1998 the Army Corps of Engineers covered the riverbank site where Kennewick Man had been discovered in 600 tons of rocks. It was an act of vandalism that destroyed any possibility of further research on the site. To this day the Corps has never satisfactorily explained its action. When the Army engineers first proposed covering up the site, scientists vigorously objected and the US Congress even passed a law demanding that the site be left intact. Nevertheless, days before the law came into effect, the Corps went ahead, some believe on the direct orders of the White House. But if scientists were devastated, many activists were elated. 'This is preservation of our culture', claimed Umatilla Indian leader Armand Minthorn as he watched Army helicopters drop their load on the river bank.

Minthorn may well have been talking metaphorically, but his response provides a good expression of the view of culture as something as rigid as a rock-filled tomb. From the viewpoint of a repatriationist, culture is like a sealed box that holds a people both in the present and across time. The assumption is that every local indigenous group is the carrier of an ancient culture, and one that is associated with spiritual values as much as material culture. Repatriation, the anthropologists Jane Hubert and Cressida Fforde write, is 'a process towards the recreation of the wholeness of the people receiving the remains of their ancestors'. The wholeness of the people. It is a phrase that calls to mind 19th century concepts of the volksgeist and the imperatives of racial science.

Troublingly, such volkish notions of culture are increasingly coming into vogue, usually in the name of anti-racism. 'We are discovering the "new human rights", which include, first and foremost, cultural rights', former UN secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali told the UN General Assembly at the launch of the International Year of the World's Indigenous Peoples in 1992. 'We might even say that there can be no human rights unless cultural authenticity is preserved.'

A United Nations report on the protection of cultural and intellectual property argues that 'each indigenous community must retain permanent control over all elements of its own heritage', heritage being defined as 'all of those things which international law regards as the creative production of human thought and craftsmanship, such as songs, stories, scientific knowledge and artworks'. UNESCO has envisioned the creation of state folklore protection boards that would 'register works and authorise their use'. Such protection boards might intervene if other peoples produce imitations or if native art was used in 'culturally inappropriate contexts'. In 2003, UNESCO adopted the International Convention of the Intangible Cultural Heritage that requires governments to prepare an inventory of intangible culture and thence to protect it. What particularly worries UNESCO 'is the inability of states in a globalised world to control the cross-border flow of ideas, images and resources that affect cultural development'. By 'highlighting the culture of economically powerful nations', UNESCO argues, globalisation 'has created new forms of inequality' and helped foster 'cultural conflict rather than cultural pluralism'. UNESCO's long-term aim, anthropologist Michael Brown suggests, is to help nations 'restrict the exportation of local knowledge and the importation of cultural items (such as music and film) perceived to pose a threat to national values and tradition'.

Arguments such as these have already had an impact on the availability of knowledge. Harvard University's Peabody Museum deliberately allowed a historic set of photographs to disintegrate because the Navajo tribe objected to non-tribal members viewing the rituals they depicted. Many museums now restrict certain exhibits to particular groups of people. The National Museum of Australia in Canberra keeps 'secret sacred' Aboriginal objects so restricted that only designated tribal members have access. Neither the museum's director nor its curator is aware of the contents of the secret sacred storage. The newly built National Museum of the American Indian in Washington segregates and restricts access to sensitive collections and has an area reserved for tribal use. New Zealand's National Museum, Te Papa Tongarewa, operates in a similar way.

In America, both the Hopi and the Apache have demanded control over cultural property of, and information about, their respective tribes, including 'all images, text, ceremonies, music, songs, stories, symbols, beliefs, customs, ideas and other physical and spiritual objects and concepts'. In Australia, Aborigines have taken legal action to prevent the national airline Qantas using a kangaroo as its logo on the grounds that the animal is Aboriginal intellectual property. In another case, Aborigines have sought copyright over all photographs and paintings of the Australian landscape that they believe is central to their spiritual life.

The resurgence of a Romantic view of culture poses a real menace to the free flow of knowledge and threatens to corral it into intellectual Bantustans. The ideas of free speech and open debate become meaningless if we fail to defend a universalist concept of knowledge or if we accept the notion of science as but a local view whose factual claims must defer to cultural and political needs. If scientific debate is constrained to express only sentiments with which people feel comfortable, culturally and politically, then science dies as the line between knowledge and myth becomes eroded. And from nineteenth century racial science to Lysekoism in the twentieth century to contemporary Creationism in the classroom, history is full of warning signs about what happens when science gives way to myth.