In a dramatic step toward settling a long and emotional quarrel between American Indians and scientists, Stanford University announced Wednesday that its laboratories will return the skeletal remains of about 550 Ohlone-Costanoan Indians to their descendants in Northern California.
The plan, which may cause other universities to follow suit, is the first such agreement ever reached between academic researchers and Indian activists, according to Rayna Green, a Cherokee scholar in Washington who has tracked the repatriation and reburial of Indian remains nationally.
Throughout the country over the last two decades, Indians and scientists have been at loggerheads over the disposition of ancient human remains that are either intentionally excavated as part of anthropological digs or inadvertently uncovered by erosion or building projects. While archeologists and anthropologists say ancient bones provide invaluable clues to the history of mankind, Indian groups maintain that research on human remains is sacrilegious and racist.
It took five years of negotiating for Stanford and the Ohlone tribe to reach an agreement. When the plan was announced Wednesday, Rosemary Cambra, a San Jose Ohlone whose ancestors' remains are among those at Stanford, praised the university for "agreeing to respect the religious rights of Indians."
Under the plan, reached jointly by Stanford's anthropology faculty and the elders of the Ohlone people, independent anthropologists from San Jose State University will make an assessment of the scientific merit of the skeletal remains, some of which are thousands of years old. The Stanford collection has been stored in laboratories and not displayed publicly.
Upon completion of the assessment, which is expected within six to seven weeks, representatives from the university and the Ohlone tribe--of which there now are an estimated 500 members in the state--will determine a schedule for returning the ancestral remains to the tribe.
If there is persuasive evidence that further research could render important scientific information, the transfer of a portion of the remains could be delayed for a specified period of time, according to the Stanford plan. But once the skeletons and artifacts are returned to the Ohlone elders, all research on the remains will come to an end, the university said.
"Anyone who believes that resolution of these issues is easy hasn't really thought about them," said Walter Falcon, Stanford's senior associate dean of humanities and sciences.
"By foregoing opportunities to use human skeletal collections, we find ourselves in conflict with two important university goals: to encourage new research and to preserve collections of scholarly materials," said a university report describing the plan.
Barbara Bocek, a Stanford archeologist, said the decision is indicative of "an awakening among archeologists to the fact that we're dealing with the remains of people who still have living descendants."
Stanford is the only university to have reached such an agreement, though many colleges and universities around the country and most public universities in California have collections of Indian remains, said Larry Myers, executive secretary of the Native American Heritage Commission in Sacramento.
"This decision actually puts Stanford several steps ahead of where the nation appears to be going," Myers said.
Half a dozen states, including California, have enacted legislation that gives Indians a voice in disposition of newly discovered remains. But universities, museums and private institutions have been reluctant to negotiate with Indians over the disposition of established collections.
The Smithsonian Institution, which has more than 18,000 skeletons of American Indians, has a policy of returning remains if they can be identified or if they were obtained unethically. On two occasions it has done so. Last year, it returned 15 skulls and two arm bones to the Blackfeet Indians for reburial in their home beneath the Sawtooth range of the Rocky Mountains. Earlier, it released the remains of several Modoc Indians whose names were known and whose descendants were found in Oregon.
But these and a handful of concessions by other museums have come only after long and vitriolic protests by Indian activists who are resentful that remains of their ancestors are stashed away in attics or displayed unceremoniously on dusty shelves.
Would such collections be tolerated if they affected other ethnic groups? asked Indian activist Clara Spotted Elk. What would happen, she wondered, if universities and museums kept bones of Holocaust victims on their shelves and in their attics?