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The Roots of NAGPRA

Remembering Maria Pearson

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Six years ago, I was lucky enough to meet Steve Russell, then an Assistant Professor in the Social and Policy Sciences department at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Professor Russell, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, had spent a couple of years investigating the roots of the repatriation movement, as part of his M.J.S. thesis research. We fell into a discussion, and he was kind enough to talk about what he had learned in the interview reposted in the next few pages. The interview turned out very well, and indeed continues to be one of the most frequently read of the articles appearing on this website.

I was reminded of the interview recently, because of a sad occasion for me professionally: Maria Pearson, a Lakota woman and highly respected leader in my home state of Iowa, passed away suddenly. In our conversations, Professor Russell had mentioned Mrs. Pearson as the founding rock upon which the repatriation movement began; or rather, the willow that would not break.

In 1971, Mrs. Pearson, a member of the Yankton Sioux people, was living in a small town in southwestern Iowa, and married to a Iowa Department of Transportation engineer. One day her husband came home from work to tell her some disturbing news. He told her that that day, the Department of Transportation had uncovered a cemetery which contained both white and Indian burials. The white individuals were reinterred; the remains of the single Native American individual were boxed up and taken to the Office of the State Archaeologist.

Mrs. Pearson went to then-Governor Robert Ray to protest the differential treatment of the dead, and a struggle over who had control of American Indian remains in the state of Iowa ensued. After a six-year battle, the Iowa Reburial Law was enacted, the first of its kind in the country. Because of the direct influence of Mrs. Pearson, working together with newly named State Archaeologist Duane Anderson, all burials in Iowa have been protected since 1976.

In honor of Mrs. Pearson, this week I'm reprinting the interview with Steve Russell as it appeared in 1997 (with some obvious cosmetic changes). Although I missed Professor Russell on his way out of town by about five minutes this evening, I'm hoping that he'll give us an update on the state of the repatriation movement when he returns.

Steve Russell is currently an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, at Indiana University. I thank him for his generosity then, and now.

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