The NAGPRA Issue, Thirty Years On

Written by: Eric Chiasson



Don Miller in 1998 in his basement museum with a dugout canoe from South America
Don Miller in 1998 in his basement museum with a dugout canoe from South America. (Rob Goebel/IndyStar)



Earlier this month, The Washington Post Magazine featured a lengthy NAGPRA piece by Elizabeth Dickinson that depicts the work of the FBI’s Art Crime Team in raiding the home of amateur pothunter Don Miller in April of 2014. Miller was one of the most prolific pothunters of his generation who was able to scour the globe in pursuit of cultural artefacts. His primary interest, however, was in Native American cultural goods. The 100-page warrant served on him that day was related to the 42,000 items he’d amassed in his home-turned-makeshift-museum. When the FBI left Miller’s property six days later, they took with them 7,000 items and had uncovered more than 2,000 bones–representing more than 500 human beings determined by forensic anthropologists as being primarily Native American.

The author correctly characterizes the search and seizure event as a “raid” but the reality is that Don Miller, by that time aged 90, and many others in the archeological and anthropological communities don’t see what Miller had done as particularly problematic. While the action taken by the FBI was in enforcement of federal cultural resource law, much of Miller’s collection had been amassed before the existence of ARPA (1979) and NAGPRA (1990). Miller, who died in March 2015, fully cooperated with the search and seizure and was never formally charged. A few months prior to his passing, the Indiana Archeological Society honored him with their Lifetime Achievement Award for the advancement of amateur archaeology.



Items and indian artifacts on Miller’s property
Items on Miller’s property. (FBI)



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Earlier this year, a different piece in Science Magazine by Lizzie Wade recounts the eruption of controversy amongst members of the SAA following its virtual annual meeting. Many members were outraged that the society had chosen to host a presentation by a physical anthropologist arguing against NAGPRA. The story provides an account given by another presenter at the event who sits on the SAA program committee and is a NAGPRA expert but was not even asked to review the controversial abstract. 

It is without question that NAGPRA is human rights law, federal Indian law, and property law. There appears, however, to be a sizeable contingent in the archeological and anthropological communities who appear willing to conflate it with religious law in order to attack it on Establishment Clause grounds. And this should be cause for concern for everyone in the cultural resource field.

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