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RAIDERS OF LOST ART

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"Basically what we are going to have to do, when a tribe says something belongs to it, is just take its word for it."

Redman and David Wilcox, curator at NAU's Museum of Northern Arizona, both say they welcome a chance to work with the tribes on repatriation, and both point out the new laws received the support of professional archaeology organizations, curators and professors. Wilcox points out that archaeologists can no longer afford to hide "horrible examples of desecration, like that collection at the Smithsonian, which we must bring into the light and face up to."

The Smithsonian Institution has 18,000 Indian corpses in storage, dating from when the U.S. Surgeon General had asked the army to take Indian heads during the plains wars of the 1870s so that experiments could be conducted to determine Native American intelligence. "This isn't the kind of thing we should be abetting," Wilcox says.

But while the tribes' relationship with academics is far more cordial than with pot hunters, a tension does exist which is likely to worsen as requests for repatriation of artifacts pour in.

Minkler says the Hopis are planning to request some religious collections at the Heard and state universities. She says that while the number of artifacts to be requested by the tribe hasn't been finalized, it is going to be greater than the institutions expect. "We want a lot of it back," she says. "And I mean a lot."

The Gila tribe, one of the state's most militant, is also expected to request "big numbers" of remains and artifacts from museums, Antone says. Of special interest are collections at the state museum and ASU that were found during the Papago and HoHoKam freeway construction.

"Archaeologists do need things to study," he says. "But how much material do they need to further scientific knowledge? Certainly not all of them. It is time for much to be returned."

The biggest effect on the state-sponsored institutions will be in the areas of research and education. "Archaeology will go on," Redman says, "but it makes me sad that the ability to study human remains will be constrained. Our ability to do isotope studies, to determine DNA structure of these remains will be severely limited." In addition, museums are feeling political pressure from tribes to stop featuring remains in their public displays, a move which some feel could limit educational efforts. ASU has a four-year-old policy prohibiting the public display of remains.

"When I was young and went to the natural history museum," Redman says, "the first thing I wanted to see were the Egyptian mummies. Why? Because they were people. Artifacts are stone, but these were human beings and they are intrinsically interesting. We are losing that."

Worried about what else they stand to lose, professors and curators are protective of their specimens. Redman, who says the topic is "too hot" because of "the current highly charged atmosphere," refused to allow a photograph to be taken even of the storage facilities where ASU's remains are kept.

"[Tribes] see things like that and then target the remains; they come after them," Redman says. "We do need to be careful."

But choke on them as they might, most museums are managing to swallow requests for repatriation of remains. However, as tribes increase their requests for return of the valuable funerary objects--many of which can fetch more than $10,000 on the open market--many museums could balk. Privately funded museums, or those that receive only a fraction of their funding from the government, also have trustees to answer to. And the forfeiture of items that may have been purchased for thousands of dollars is not considered sound financial management. One Phoenix collector who has made several donations to the Heard Museum says he will "fight like hell, including going to battle in a courtroom, before seeing those precious things returned to tribes that won't care for them properly anyway."

Although not directly affected by the federal legislation, most dealers and collectors are also watching the outcome of the tribal-museum conflict with a leery eye. Will Hughes, an Arizona pot hunter and friend of Peter Hester, claims the repatriation legislation makes archaeology "a castrated science."

"Scientists will be forced to go without a lot of knowledge if they can't experiment and learn freely from remains," he says. "This is akin to if animal-rights advocates had their way and all experiments were performed by computer model. It just isn't as effective.

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Darrin Hostetler