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Film Catalog » Subject Areas » Native American Studies » Who Owns the Past?

Who Owns the Past?

Who Owns the Past? - Image Produced by Jed Riffe.
56 min. Color. 2002.
Available as: VHS and DVD
Captioned: Yes
Catalog #: 0092
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Sale Price: $275.00 Buy VHS Buy DVD

This outstanding documentary relates the powerful history of the American Indian struggle for control of their ancestral remains. In 1990, after a long struggle between Indian rights groups and the scientific establishment, the Native American Graves Repatriation and Protection Act (NAGPRA) returned to Indian people the right to control the remains of their ancestors.

For American Indians, this was perhaps the most important piece of civil and human rights legislation of the 20th century. Skeletons and grave goods that had been gathering dust in museums around the country could come home again, and Indian graves would be protected from further desecration. Indian people were not only being heard; their moral claims on their past were being turned into law.

Now a new case is testing these claims. The discovery of a 9,000-year-old skeleton on the banks of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington, has re-ignited the conflict between anthropologists and Indian people over the control of human remains found on ancestral Indian lands. Anthropologists insist that these remains hold the key to America’s past and must be studied for the benefit of mankind, while many Indian people believe that exhuming and studying them is a desecration of their ancestors.

At the heart of the conflict are two very different and seemingly irreconcilable belief systems. "Who Owns the Past?" uses the Kennewick Man case as a frame to explore the roots of this conflict, roots that reach back to the very beginnings of American history. By exploring the historical events that led to the passage of NAGPRA and the current controversy over Kennewick Man, the film provides a clear context for understanding the issues involved. Perhaps most important, the film illuminates the two very different world views that inform this controversy and that will continue to have tremendous impact on Indian people and on all Americans long into the future.

"Who Owns the Past?" is essential viewing for a wide array of classes in American history and studies, Native American studies, ethnic studies and multiculturalism, anthropology, and archaeology. It was produced by Jed Riffe and narrated by Academy-Award-winning actress Linda Hunt.


"I can't imagine teaching my classes in anthropology and archaeology without showing this film. It opens up many fruitful avenues of discussion about Indian peoples as well as the future well-being of the disciplines of anthropology and archaeology." -- Jerald Jay Johnson, Chair, Dept. of Anthropology, California State Univ., Sacramento

"This sensitive, deftly developed, and well-balanced film explores two widely divergent perspectives on the past. It does not attempt to resolve the issues it presents nor to tilt the story toward one side or the other. On the contrary, it presents the material in a way that enables students to understand the complexity of the issues and to analyze and discuss them themselves. The issues examined... go to the heart of value differences in a diverse and democratic society." -- Rita Napier, Prof. of History, Univ. of Kansas

"If the purpose of a documentary is to encourage viewers to think critically about historical and contemporary matters, then Who Owns the Past? passes the test in an exemplary fashion. This is a timely documentary about significant historical and contemporary issues surrounding a long-standing controversy between American Indians and those who view Native remains as a source of research and knowledge. The film does a superb job of bringing together important elements of this complex, cross-cultural struggle. It traces the history of grave looting in what became the United States from the landing of the Mayflower in 1620 to the 'Kennewick Man' dispute of contemporary times. The film presents a compelling story in an even-handed manner. It will provoke needed reflection and discussion and should be widely used in courses that deal with American history, Native American history, Indian-white relations, anthropology, public policy, and race and ethnicity." -- James Riding In, Prof. of History, Arizona State Univ., Member of Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma

"An outstanding educational tool! It's remarkable for its extraordinary balance and integrity, its great filmic quality, and the currency of its coverage of this major issue affecting anthropologists, Native Americans, and, ultimately, the entire American public." -- Deward Walker, Jr., Prof. of Anthropology and Ethnic Studies, Univ. of Colorado at Boulder

"Thanks to my background as a California Indian, my training in cultural anthropology, and my profession as a museum director, I have often found myself involved in (and struggling with) the multitude of issues, emotions, and viewpoints surrounding the repatriation of American Indiain human remains. Who Owns the Past? does an admirable job of letting a diverse group of scholars, museum professionals, tribal leaders, and activists voice their perspectives on this volatile issue, thus enabling viewers to understand the historical, scientific, and sacred roots of the current controversy." -- Sherrie Smith-Ferri, Ph.D., Dir., Grace Hudson Museum


  • American Indian Film Festival "Best Feature Documentary" nominee
  • Society for Visual Anthropology selection
  • American Anthropological Assn. selection
  • Taos Talking Pictures Festival honoree
  • Montreal Intl. Native Film Festival honoree
  • Victoria Island Intl. Film Festival honoree



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