Who owns other peoples’ ancestral remains? Certainly not anthropologists or museum curators, said Michael Blakey, National Endowment for the Humanities Professor of Anthropology, Africana Studies and American Studies at William & Mary.

As co-chair of the American Anthropological Association’s Commission for the Ethical Treatment of Human Remains, Blakey recently co-authored a report requiring a hard turn for the discipline. Its recommendations cover issues from acquisition practices and transparency needs to training requirements and informed consent.

The decisions of descendants, said Blakey, will determine whether in the future anthropologists will be able to work with ancestral remains.

In the United States alone, museums and institutions are still holding more than 100,000 Native American ancestral remains after over 30 years since the introduction of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act

“Anthropologists must apologize for this unconsented use,” said Blakey. “For descendant communities, it constitutes the destruction of their memorials.”

Globally, a framework is needed to protect displaced remains belonging to African American and Indigenous communities, he said. Over the past two years, the commission conducted domestic and international listening sessions with affected African American, Native American and Indigenous communities, also consulting with culture workers and members of the public.

“The idea was to learn from those most affected by the anthropological treatment of human remains,” said Blakey, a respected authority on the theme who notably served as scientific director of the New York African Burial Ground Project. At William & Mary, he also serves as founding director for the Institute for Historical Biology, which has successfully engaged with descendant communities – for example, when working with Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists and the First Baptist Church community. 

The most fundamental principle informing the report is informed consent. “If you don’t have permission, then it’s desecration,” said Blakey.

Indeed, the report acknowledges the number of ancestral remains that were acquired from gravesite theft or through exploitative practices. Also, it recommends that students learn about the racist origins of biological anthropology.

“A lot of the knowledge anthropologists produced was poor and destructive,” said Blakey. “Eugenics was at the core of anthropological thought for 50 years, and before that it was craniometry, providing racial justification for slavery.”

The way evidence was collected in museums, he said, gave authority to racist science and did not honor the rights of descendants. Deferring to the decisions of descendant communities means creating forums, site by site, for conversations between anthropologists and community members so that the latter can now benefit from research and be informed about potential harms.

“It means reaching out to the different, say, African American organizations in a particular region, letting them know what is at stake and beginning a conversation about the history of the site,” said Blakey.

Such a process needs time: A descendant community can’t be created quickly; leaders can’t be pre-picked.

“That’s the hard part: It’s having the patience and empathy to let people become their own self-selected, inclusive and democratic organization,”

he said.

W&M anthropology students, he pointed out, learn to work with communities and get practice in this area; also, two Ph.D. students from William & Mary, Victoria Gum and Maia Wilson, were notetakers at the Commission’s Washington, D.C. domestic session. 

“One of the things we’re recommending is that the American Anthropological Association promote the establishment of organizations that can do the kind of thing we do at the Institute for Historical Biology,” said Blakey. As an example, he mentioned a current cooperative agreement between the institute and the U.S. National Park Service in developing a descendant community in the Shenandoah Valley around two plantation sites.

“As an institute, we said from the beginning, ‘We are not going to do the engagement for you: We’ll help you engage with your community,’” he said.

However, not all descendant communities may be supportive of research, at least until there is an apology. In the absence of informed consent, the commission recommends that researchers commit to a hard pause on research.

Anthropology, said Blakey, had always been troubled by a dilemma between the human need to know and the human need for dignity; the commission looked at ways in which both could occur, with dignity being primary.

“We became habituated to the objectification of the other in museums,” said Blakey. “One comes to be uncritical of it.” 

Alongside apologizing for present and past harms, the commission’s report seeks to develop a new ethos in anthropology by working with and for communities.

“I think we’ll have better research questions as a result of this part of it,” said Blakey. “I call this the democratization of scientific knowledge.”

, Senior Research Writer