Authors of the recently published book “Repatriation and Erasing the Past” are pushing back against critics, telling The College Fix accusations of “scientific racism” made against them are “patently false.”
“Falsely playing the race card — as has been done here — to try to ban a book simply because one doesn’t agree with the contents is unhelpful to the fight against genuine racism,” said San Jose State Anthropology Professor Elizabeth Weiss in an emailed statement.
Weiss and her co-author, attorney James Springer, take a “critical look at laws that mandate the return of human remains from museums and laboratories to ancestral burial grounds,” according to the book’s promotional materials.
Some academics have called for the book to have its open access revoked to prevent “further harm to Indigenous communities and scholars,” according to a protest letter.
Controversy over the book is just the latest chapter in a battle between scientists and Native American rights activists over a law known as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which generally governs how researchers and archaeologists must treat the bones of Native Americans when they are found.
Scientists argue they need to study the remains of indigenous people to explain the development of humanity, while Native American activists believe the remains of indigenous people should be preserved by tribes, even if there is no demonstrable link between the tribe and the remains.
But last week, a number of academics began circulating an open letter urging the University of Florida Press to reconsider publishing the book, accusing the authors of espousing “explicitly racist ideology.”
“The ideas espoused by the authors are antithetical to the contemporary practice of anthropology and actively harmful to Indigenous people and the strides the discipline has made in the last three decades,” the letter’s authors wrote.
“In free, open and democratic societies, we don’t seek to ban books we don’t like — we debate the contents,” said Weiss and Springer in response.
“Our work takes a critical look at NAGPRA, repatriation, and the ideology behind it,” Weiss and Springer told The Fix.
“Our case is largely based on the legal issues that surround repatriation, especially the entanglements with religion and, thus, the possible violation of the First Amendment of the US Constitution. We also explain the difficulty in tying human remains to specific tribes, whether using scientific data such as DNA, or cultural sources such as Native American narratives,” said the authors.
“Furthermore, we highlight the problems that arise when repatriation ideology triumphs over science. It is ironic that in a year when the rallying cry has been to follow the science, critics of Repatriation and Erasing the Past are arguing for banning a book that champions the scientific method over superstition, myth, and legend,” said Weiss and Springer.
But their opponents are not convinced.
“This volume promotes racist ideologies and reflects very badly on the University Press of Florida, anthropologists associated with the press, and our profession in general,” write the authors of the open letter, noting that not every letter co-signer believes in retraction of the book.
The lead American co-signers of the letter include Annalisa Heppner of Brown University, Kristina Killgrove of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Gwen Robbins Schug of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Appalachian State University.
Last week, University of Alabama-Birmingham Egyptologist Sarah Parcak tweeted that the book “is racist garbage and needs to be pulled immediately,” while Dr. Ebony Thomas of the University of Pennsylvania responded that she was “surprised this passed peer review.”
Noting there are “strong feelings” on both sides of the repatriation debate, Weiss and Springer said they “encourage and welcome civil discussions.”
“We would never wish to silence our critics or censor works that contradict our perspective,” said the authors. “We hope those calling for the de-publication of Repatriation and Erasing the Past see the harm that censorship causes to intellectual freedom and reconsider their position,” they said.
Weiss and Springer noted that many of the attacks they have received have been of a “personal” nature.
“We will not go down this road,” they said.
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