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The Smithsonian’s Job Listing For An ‘Anti-Indiana Jones’ Represents A Good Step For Society


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The Smithsonian Institute just announced they’re looking for a person to fill a position as a Repatriation Research Specialist. The position is essentially the “anti-Indiana Jones” and will help the organization continue repatriating Native American artifacts, remains, and other ill-gotten objects to native tribes and indigenous people across North and South America. The gig pays $56-78k per year and is part of a programming offering good jobs to veterans after their service.

The overall job is basically about doing research into the Smithsonian’s millions of objects of indigenous origin. Up until 1978 — the year after Star Wars was released — it was illegal for Native Americans to practice their religion. This led to some very nefarious practices from anthropologists, biologists, archaeologists, and independent “treasure hunters.” We tend to romanticize these sort of people like the swashbuckling Indy, but the reality was much dirtier and far more racist than that.

Natives being forbidden from practicing their religions and moving freely in-and-out of ancient sacred lands — relics, talismans, everyday items, and even bodies were confiscated and either put on display, dissected, auctioned off, or simply stored in museums and universities. Couple that with the complete disregard for indigenous life, extermination laws, and the internment of Native Americans on reservations and you have a system that took with impunity and thought they were 100% justified in doing so.

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It wasn’t until 1990 — the year after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was released — that Congress finally passed Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (known as NAGPRA). That act made it illegal to simply take whatever you wanted from indigenous sites and quite literally rob and plunder Native American graves. Now, grave robbing or theft from indigenous sites carries a $100,000 fine and up to a year in jail. This built upon the Iowa Burials Protection Act of 1976 which was the first American law that officially allowed Native Americans to claim human remains and gave them the simple right to bury their own dead.

NAGPRA also set aside money and agency to start cataloging and figuring out how to return sacred items that were stolen and the remains of indigenous people who were either put on display in museums or boxed up in storehouses. It was a crucial step in the right direction to recognizing Indigenous Americans as… well… people. This is where the Smithsonian comes in.

Congress established the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in 1989 to centralize all the indigenous artifacts around the country and start cataloging what America actually held. Seven years later, Congress expanded on NMAI’s mandate to start repatriating “human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony.” That last one means any article or object that has historical or cultural significance to a group of people.

The process of returning items has been slow, however. The most newsworthy of the returns was the famed Kennewick Man last year. The nearly 9,000-year-old skeleton was found in 1996 near the Columbia River. The remains were confiscated for research purposes under protest from the local tribes in the area. It took the advent of modern DNA testing to prove that that remains belonged to the same native population, living in central Washington state today. So the remains were returned to be reburied on tribal land.

In case you’re wondering how big of a task this is — Kennewick Man represents one of the over 32,000 human remains NAGPRA has returned to their homes over the last 27 years. There’s still a very long way to go.

The Smithsonian aims to make sure that the returns of these artifacts are done correctly and to the correct descendants from whom the objects or remains were stolen. They have a long set of rules that puts the burden of proof on tribes to prove that the artifact or remains belong to their community. Hence the DNA evidence sealing the deal with Kennewick Man.

In the end, taking a job as the Repatriation Research Specialist at the Smithsonian feels like a job where healing and bridge building can continue between the descendants of colonizer and those still under that yoke. It’s less “it belongs in a museum” and more “it belongs with the people who the museum took it from” — and that’s a very good thing.

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