Science and White Supremacy (Part 1)
Evaluating Elizabeth Weiss's polemic against NAGPRA
(The stock photo above is an image from the Weiss and Springer article in Quillette, cited below.)
Anthropology is not a dispassionate science like astronomy, which springs from the contemplation of things at a distance. It is the outcome of a historical process which has made the larger part of mankind subservient to the other, and during which millions of innocent human beings have had their resources plundered and their institutions and beliefs destroyed whilst they themselves were ruthlessly killed, thrown into bondage, and contaminated by diseases they were unable to resist. Anthropology is the daughter to this era of violence.1
This is an initial foray, so some of the comments and observations I make in what follows here will be consciously tentative and conditional. Others will take on a very different tone, one of patent disbelief, since it beggars belief that a t*nured professor in the very problematic field of archaeology would openly attack NAGPRA. What is more, that critique — a polemic, really — is deployed from the stance of “the scientific method and the pursuit of the truth,” and so on. As if we hadn’t moved on from a naive understanding of these things, especially from within the context of academic disciplines operating in a settler-colonial order! Some of what follows may seem like shooting fish in a barrel, then, but reader beware: lots of scientists continue to operate under the assumption that the work they do is value neutral, in contrast to the interventions of the state in favor of Native/Indigenous “communities.”
To be more specific, and to provide an updated version of what their actions indicate, the argument isn’t that the work of science is value neutral, exactly, but (to paraphrase Jeff Isaac, who was paraphrasing Max Weber), what scientists and social scientists do is inherently liberal and needs defending as such against its detractors. The detractors that Isaac et al. had in mind were of course from the right — that particular salvo took place in the early 2000s, during the Schmittian years of Bush’s Iraq War — whereas the kind of “critique” of NAGPRA mounted by Weiss and others is leveled at the postcolonial/decolonial Left, from a scientific/liberal center. Synoptically: our target today is a polemic against NAGPRA, from an anthropologist who wants to speak from the stance of a defender of the sciences, but who (unconsciously?) reiterates a lot of points that intersect with various liberal self-understandings.
In a recent legal case, Professor Elizabeth Weiss argued that the limitations imposed by NAGPRA (and the California state equivalent) represent an infringement on her First Amendment rights. More specifically, she contends that NAGPRA represents a subtle but nevertheless real attempt at imposing religion, which of course would be problematic under the establishment clause. That clause states that the state isn’t supposed to establish, or even prefer, a certain religious position or stance as it regulates the various actions that take place as part of the process of scientific research. NAGPRA does this, or so Weiss argues, in its imposition what she calls “Creationism:”
Creationism is embraced in repatriation laws and ideology, which we define as any belief of political movement that attempts to control anthropological research by giving control of research over to the contemporary American Indian communities, and we do not limit it to simply the repatriation of human remains and artifacts.2
Weiss then goes on to cite the well-known Lemon test:
The Lemon test (named after the Lemon v. Kurtzman case) is a way to determine if a law violates the disestablishmentarian facet of the First Amendment. The Lemon test states that a statute must have a secular legislative purpose, its primary effect cannot advance or inhibit religion, and the statute must not foster excessive entanglement with religion. NAGPRA does not pass this test.3
I won’t spend a lot of time unpacking the particulars of her argument here, except to allude to the passage that follows this quote, which calls into question the fact that the institutional Review Committee tasked with upholding the law must be made up of “traditional Indian religious leaders.” Her contention here is that this preference represents a form of “excessive entanglement” insofar as the Department of Interior must get involved in defining relevant or pertinent terms (although surely most of the work of deciding who is a religious expert and what that expertise means is done by the tribes themselves, not the federal government).
As I suggested above, Weiss’s use of the term “Indian communities” carries a lot of conceptual weight. Her paper begins with a weird exculpatory/apologetic assertion that anthropologists have done a great deal as educators to defend a Darwinian or evolutionary perspective, which is of course part of her polemic against what she calls Creationism. There’s an obvious elision here, between the truth-claims made by evangelical Christians who in fact do clearly attempt to defend a view of cosmology that is explicitly Creationist, and Native American tribes, sovereign nations with sacred traditions that predate all of the Abrahamic faiths by an order of tens of thousands of years. Let’s just say, charitably, that these two things aren’t the same. And (again, charitably and with as much generosity as I can muster at the moment), any worldview or method or critical approach that doesn’t have the capacity to understand the vital differences between these two things has no business making an argument worth our time as scholars or even citizens of a republic. An argument that “misunderstands” Native religion as having anything to do with Western/Abrahamic ontotheology (in particular the emphasis on a transcendent Creator who manifests a cosmos ex nihilo), is either woefully uninformed or is being made in bad faith.4
I am going to choose the first option, in part because I see this kind of argument being made in the public sphere by other well-meaning evangelists of a kind of naive self-understanding of the scientific method. If we look carefully and deliberately, however, the argument relies on the construction of a single frame or what one might call an epistemic field, into which contentions, truth claims, assertions, speech-acts of all kinds, can be inserted. Once they’re there, they become representative: this particular stance is the one occupied by the defenders of a Creationist cosmology, while that particular stance is an “evolutionary” or Darwinian one. Once these players have their positions sorted out, they are then free to engage in the process of debate in the “marketplace of ideas,” where the bad ideas are falsified and eliminated over time. This via negativa or route of falsification is allegedly the way scientific or technical progress happens. Anyone familiar with the polemics of (mostly bad faith) free speech warriors in the contemporary, socially-mediated frame, is familiar with this view. Most of us are also familiar with the way in which it maps very poorly onto the real world we inhabit; that world is one where lots of bad ideas not only circulate, but grow in intensity even as they depart farther from shared intersubjective understandings.
I don’t want to spend any more time talking about this! Thankfully, in the second installment, we won’t have to. I will make an argument there about the proper way to understand what NAGPRA does, namely, repatriate human remains and artifacts. This will require a bit of work on the history and importance — especially the political importance — of the concept of repatriation.
See you then!
Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (Tr. by John Russell: New York, Athenaeum Press, 1966), pg. 126. Quoted in Scheper-Hughes, “Ishi’s Brain: Ishi’s Ashes: Anthropology and Genocide,” in Anthropology Today, Feb 2001, p. 13. The title of my post echoes the subtitle of Scheper-Hughes’ article.
“Has Creationism Crept Back into Archaeology?” pg. 1. For the controversy around this paper, which was presented at the Society for American Archaeology in April 2021, see: https://www.science.org/content/article/archaeology-society-hosted-talk-against-returning-indigenous-remains-some-want-new
As an egregious example of bad faith actors, see: https://quillette.com/2021/06/13/why-is-the-society-for-american-archaeology-promoting-indigenous-creationism/. The stock photo above comes from this page.