And just like that, University of California at Berkeley officials offer to repatriate the remains of the Japanese soldiers purportedly taken after the Battle of Saipan. While no doubt many will applaud this decision on ethical if not legal grounds, many too will be left scratching their heads. Why is it that within 7 days of this story breaking the university decided to return these remains -- while thousands upon thousands of Native American remains are left on museum shelves? What legal mandates, if any and precisely, did the university decide demanded such swift and decisive action -- while NAGPRA, even nearly 20 years later, cannot get institutions to respond so promptly and agreeably?
The Stars and Stripes quotes a Japanese returnee from Saipan as saying, "I do not understand why they have to have been humiliated like that as subject of research for such a long time. It certainly lacks respect to the dead." Another says, "It just breaks my heart when I think how much they must have longed to go back to their homeland." It is fascinating to think about how Native Americans have been making similar arguments for a half-century or more, and yet, in general, they have received such a different reply from museums and universities.
We had similar questions when we read earlier this summer about the reburial in Tucson, Arizona, of nearly 60 soldiers who had fought in the Indian Wars. The remains had been excavated in 2007 to make way for a new building. At an estimated cost of $300,000, and witnessed by 750 local citizens, these remains were reverently laid to rest with full military honors. "These young men laid down their lives a long time ago so we could live in this country and this state," Arizona Governor Jan Brewer said after the ceremony. "I think it's important that we interred today the heroes of yesterday." A Civil War re-enactor and former Army reservist simply said, "I just thought it was something that should be done out of respect for the soldiers."
Why do people think so differently about Native American human remains?