IN April 1998, the Army Corps of Engineers dumped 600 tons of boulders and dirt over an area near the Columbia River in Washington where, two years earlier, the oldest known skeleton in North America — dubbed Kennewick Man — had been found.
If there were other 9,200-year-old bones under the rubble, if there were any other artifacts that might have given clues about events in North America millenniums before written history could provide an account, now they would be safely interred.
That was just what five Indian tribes in the area preferred. Though the skeleton was found on federal land, the tribes claimed it as ancestral, rejecting assertions that it had no connection to them and refusing to allow scientists to conduct an examination. They insisted the bones be turned over for immediate burial, invoking the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The United States government agreed with alacrity.
In such circumstances, why stir up more trouble? Better to bury the entire site. The Corps of Engineers said that it was engaged in an act of conservation; it wanted to protect the site from erosion. Its rush, the corps said, had nothing to do with the fact that Congressional bills forbidding it from disturbing the archaeologically important area had just been passed but had not become law yet. It hurried, it said, because salmon protection regulations would have prevented shoreline work after April 15. The dirt-dumping was also supported by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, a federal agency that describes itself as seeking to preserve "our nation's historic resources."
A strange sort of protection and conservation indeed! Don't reveal the past, bury it; don't seek information, protect yourself from it; don't add complications, welcome simplification. But stranger still is that these actions were not really out of character with the impact of the protection act.
The law requires federal agencies, and museums that have received federal funds, to survey their collections, identify Indian remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and other objects endowed with "cultural patrimony," consult with Indian tribes and "repatriate" them if requested; newly discovered remains could be claimed by tribes showing a "cultural affinity" with them. The law was meant to provide a form of cultural and material restitution. But beyond any imagining, it also transferred intellectual authority over these objects to the tribes, increased the reluctance of curators to act as autonomous interpreters and diminished the stature of independent scholarship and scientific inquiry.
In the Kennewick case, scientists sued the government and ultimately won the right to examine the bones, something that is now taking place. (DNA testing has not demonstrated any genetic connection between the skeleton and contemporary peoples.) But museums have taken a different course: they are transforming themselves under the law's pressures.
According to federal statistics, by 2005, remains of more than 30,000 individuals had been "deacquisitioned," along with more than 500,000 funerary and sacred objects. The effects have been profound, not because of the loss of the objects from museums, but because the law enforced a way of thinking about them. In the protection act's version of "cultural patrimony," it is not just ownership of an individual object that can be called into question, but the possession of all objects from an Indian culture. The "repatriation" has also led to consultations in which tribal leaders become involved even in the treatment of objects that are not repatriated, able to help mold their interpretation, to guide research about their pasts and to influence how they are displayed.
To some extent, this sea change in museum life is part of an international movement advocating for "aboriginal" or "native" cultures and formerly colonized nations. This month, for example, Peru announced it would sue Yale University over its claims to ownership of objects related to the exploration of Machu Picchu by a Yale explorer, Hiram Bingham, in 1912.
The change also involves more than objects. In Australia, as the anthropologist Michael F. Brown reports in his book "Who Owns Native Culture?," Aboriginal militants have claimed that images of the emu and kangaroo were the property of the Aboriginal people. Some Australian curators have accommodated Aboriginal demands that female curators can't handle their objects.
Mr. Brown points out that the Hopis in New Mexico have been trying to restrict and control important historical photographs documenting their secret religious ceremonies; they were made by the Mennonite missionary Heinrich R. Voth at the turn of the 20th century, after he had been given access by Hopi priests. (Later priests have consulted these detailed photographs to try to restore frayed traditions.)
Sound recordings have also been challenged. In 1907, the ethnomusicologist Frances Densmore set off on a series of expeditions for the Smithsonian's Bureau of American Ethnology, ultimately recording 3,000 wax cylinders of songs from 30 Indian tribes. But in a play, "SongCatcher," by a White Earth Anishinabe playwright, Marcie Rendon, Densmore's recordings lead to death and despair. "My songs, my wife, my religion," the main character accuses her. "You took them all."
As Mr. Brown points out, in such instances even immaterial things — images or songs — are claimed as property; their documentary and historical value is dismissed in theory if not in practice.
Often, all outsider knowledge is treated as a kind of trespass. The implications of this are troubling. Outsiders' written accounts may have been distorted or false, but they can be examined and put in context, and archaeological and scientific data can lead in new directions. But most aboriginal cultures did not even possess sophisticated written languages, while their oral traditions have been disrupted by trauma, massacre and disease. Insistence on the absolute truth of those traditions, regardless of evidence, turns into a variety of fundamentalism.
One Umatilla tribal leader, for example, scoffed at suggestions that Kennewick Man was unrelated to contemporary tribes, arguing that the Indians had been the region's only inhabitants and that, in proof, the tribe's oral history goes back 10,000 years: "We know how time began and how Indian people were created." The protection act has helped institutionalize deference to this kind of assertion.
One reason for all these problems, is the brutish past. In his book "Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology and the Battle for Native American Identity," David Hurst Thomas, curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, argues that "the American academic community — led by grave-digging archaeologists — has robbed the Native American people of their history and their dignity."
He points out that after the horrific 1864 massacre of hundreds of Cheyenne at Sand Creek, Colo., corpses had their skin removed and were "carefully crated for shipment eastward to the new Army Medical Museum in the nation's capital." The bones were exhibited at the Smithsonian and elsewhere.
Indeed, it may be that one reason why the protection act has been so widely accepted is that its title emphasizes "Native American graves." Human remains are the least ambiguous artifacts of the past: their possession is typically the result of murder or theft. Hundreds of thousands of Indian remains are said to be in American museums.
The law's extension to other objects, though, raises more questions. Though there is a procedure to determine each object's fate, the law is not primarily designed to trace ownership. The presumption is that a museum's possession is a violation. The main issue is whether there is enough "cultural affiliation" so an Indian claim can be established. Communal ownership and communal grievances become central.
A sense of grievance is surely justified, but there is also an impulse to try to restore some primal past, one free of looting and abuse, that presumably existed before museums and colonization disrupted the social and cosmic order. One result has been to revivify the old romantic myth of the Indian as a pastoral figure with no active role in the globe's pockmarked history of plunder and enslavement. The Indian is only a passive recipient of its worst injuries. Tribal conflicts, slavery and wars, evidence of pre-colonial migrations — all the complications of historical actors are stripped away. The myth reigns.
Even exhibitions must now provide a form of repatriation: if, in the past, museums had erred with a limited understanding of tribal perspectives, now they are heading in just the opposite direction, pressured by tribal consultations, the threat of repatriations, and a desire to transcend past guilt. A tone of self-promotion can come into play.
This is the dominant tone, for example, of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian. Tribes tell their own stories, not because they are most knowledgeable but because finally, they have control. One tribe, asked to name the 10 most important events in its history, included "birds teach people to call for rain," and a recent "desert walk for health." "Honesty, love, courage, truth, wisdom, humility and respect," are the values promoted by one tribe. "Respect and sharing of your self is very important," says another. Any specific sense of tribal history or meaningful description of particular beliefs is difficult to find in the haze.
Serious scholarly exhibitions also fall prey to these sentiments. An exhibition of early American Indian art last winter at the Art Institute of Chicago, for example, began with the words of a tribal leader expressing how these objects will help his people realize they were descended from "a wonderful and great culture" — an assessment echoed in other exhibition texts. And if some objects suggested the importance of weaponry, enslavement and "trophy scalps," to these ancient cultures, their implications were studiously ignored.
One reason for the Kennewick Man controversy is that it threatens to upset this model. If the skeleton is not directly connected with contemporary tribes, the very premises of the aboriginal world view, with its nativist claims, and its assertions of unique historical trauma, must be modified. It would imply that Indian tribes had a past that was neither as primordial nor as pastoral as oral histories assert, that other groups had come and gone, and other struggles had taken place.
Hence, the Indian anxieties over a skeleton. Already, hundreds of less-renowned prehistoric skeletons have been turned over by museums for Indian burial. The lawsuit over Kennewick Man gave hope that perhaps the standard of proof for repatriation would be raised. But there has also been an attempt to establish through fiat what has not been established by fact: last year, Senator John McCain of Arizona, on behalf of several tribes, proposed an amendment to the protection act; it would ensure that ancient remains would automatically qualify as Indian remains, without requiring ancestral proof.
But that idea, like the premature burial of the site itself, is a sign of how readily contemporary exhibitions and investigations of the Indian past are now characterized by the desire not to fully explore but to fully appease.