With little warning, the American Museum of Natural History in New York abruptly closed almost 10,000 square feet of Native American exhibitions on Jan. 26. The reason? New regulations from the Biden administration to enforce a 1990 law known as the Native American Graves Repatriation Act.
Like most legislation, this law has a defensible idea at its core. Clearly, it is a sensitive matter if people display Native skeletons in museums, especially if they were dug out of their graves at a time when tribal rights of consent were not considered.
However, repeated whip-cracking by Biden-appointed officials at the Department of the Interior has made the situation so difficult that museums with almost any Native American artifacts are finding it impossible to maintain their displays without interference.
The law was originally intended to protect actual human remains from grave-robbing, but now it has been extended to include every sort of Native American artifact, including historical canoes and wampum belts.
Recognized tribes, many of which contain no trained archaeologists or anthropologists whatsoever, are being given the right to veto any display that pertains to their modern geographical region. As a result, many museums are simply shutting their exhibitions down or giving their collections away.
The irony of this situation should be obvious: Legislation aimed at “empowering Native Americans” is instead helping to erase them from the public consciousness altogether.
And the damage goes far deeper than most people realize. According to the anthropologist Elizabeth Weiss of San Jose State University, the fervor for the reburial of Native bones means that skeletons thousands of years old, which bear no cultural or direct genetic relation to any modern tribe, are being removed from archaeology collections. This effectively removes them from the scientific record, making crucial studies about modern Natives’ ancient ancestors — for example, genetic testing to trace long-lost lineages or establish ancient tribal movements — impossible.
In this way, the Biden administration is erasing Native history.
Based on this same misguided attitude that lived experience trumps science, museums have already been reinventing themselves as theme parks where hearsay and superstition are presented as historical fact, and with far fewer artifacts on display. An example of what’s in store is the already-renovated Northwest Coast Hall at the same New York American Natural History Museum, which has been decried by anthropologists as a travesty that intentionally deludes the public.
In popular culture, the effect of the museum closures is similar to the renaming of sports teams such as the Cleveland Indians, the retirement of iconic brands such as the Jeep Cherokee and even the banning of Native American Halloween costumes.
But the destruction of all references to Native Americans in popular culture, under the made-up pretense of avoiding “cultural appropriation,” is also sorely misguided. Native Americans have long had one of the most recognizable profiles of any Indigenous group anywhere in the world. The popularity of Native images, likenesses and intellectual property confers substantial benefits upon Native American peoples in multiple areas, including domestic and international tourism and popular media phenomena (“Killers of the Flower Moon,” “Yellowstone”).
If the current trend continues, though, we will face a situation in 20 years where the very idea of the Native American will have all but disappeared from global culture — an anachronism as dated as Puritanism or the temperance movement.
On a societal level, the danger is even more stark. If the absurd idea that lived experience trumps science is allowed to reshape our museums and other places of scientific inquiry, we face a rapid descent into a new post-scientific Dark Ages. It is doubtful that any modern Americans, no matter their ancestry, would find that fun.
Jeff Fynn Paul is a professor of global history and economics at Leiden University, The Netherlands, and author of “Not Stolen: The Truth About European Colonialism in the New World.”
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