Who Owns the Past?
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.