Dr. Rosita Worl has retired after 12 years of service from her post on a federal advisory committee that has been instrumental in returning cultural artifacts to Southeast Alaska. Until Friday, Worl — who is the president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute — was the sole Alaska Native on the seven-member Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Review Committee.
“I just feel like it’s time to move. It’s a lot of work and a tremendous amount of reading,” Worl said. “It was truly an honor to be on the board.”
NAGPRA is a landmark law enacted in 1990 that has enabled tribes from around the country to reclaim human remains and objects that are sacred, funerary or of exceptional cultural or historical importance from federally funded museums and research institutions. Southeast tribes have been particularly active and successful in making claims. On the heels of her retirement from the post, Worl reflects on her experience on the committee and the future of NAGPRA.
“To have human remains and sacred objects returned home, it’s just a very profound thing,” Worl said. “I’ve had an opportunity to see tribes from around the country and sometimes they’re not successful and they’re sad, and sometimes you get to see their joy to have those objects returned home.
“You’re dealing with tribes that believe that certain things belong at home and sometimes museums just don’t agree with that. It’s emotionally draining at times.”
Worl said relating the importance of NAGPRA to those unfamiliar with the law isn’t difficult. She said many Americans already share similarly intense feelings about certain objects.
“Just look at how hard we worked as a nation to make sure that all the remains of the victims of 9/11 were returned and I know Americans feel really strongly about the flag. You just know its place in our history,” Worl said. “They’re not only objects. They not only symbolize, they actually embody the spirit of their ancestors. I think the way people feel about the flag and how it embodies patriotism is pretty similar to how we feel (about our sacred objects).”
Worl said she became concerned about the future of NAGPRA after a court ruled in 2004 that the remains of a prehistoric man found in 1996 on a bank of the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington had no connection to modern day tribes. Worl said that the committee still needs to determine what the Kennewick Man ruling means for NAGPRA.
“If we don’t, then there’s not that certainty that human remains dated 10,000 years and older will be determined as Native Americans,” Worl said. “We need to amend the law to recognize that remains that old are Native American. I’m sorry that in my time we were not able to convince Congress of that, but it continues to be an issue for (the Alaska Federation of Natives) and the corporations. We will not relent on that.”
Worl said that scientists and tribes can work together when it comes to dealing with human remains that are both sacred and of scientific importance.
In 1996, researchers discovered the On Your Knees cave on Prince of Wales Island. When researchers found human remains in the cave, excavation was halted and local tribal governments were contacted. The remains were determined to be about 10,300 years old. The Tlingit people were found to be the rightful owners of the remains, but scientists still had interest in examining them. Both parties were able to form a partnership.
Scientists studied the remains and learned that humans may have colonized that area before the last Ice Age about 11,000 years ago. Because the remains were found on an island and the tools discovered were made from materials not found in that area, some scientists began to question the theory that humans migrated to the Americas from Asia.
It was an exciting find that reaffirmed an ancient Tlingit presence in Southeast, Worl said.
Once scientists were finished studying the remains, they were returned to the Tlingit people for reburial.
“Discussions about the Kennewick Man and remains found on Prince of Wales were proceeding at almost the same time. We were working with scientists. With the Kennewick Man it was more of an adversarial situation,” Worl said. “It was a really good example of the two sides being able to work together. I think that’s an interesting contrast.”
Despite Worl’s departure from the NAGPRA Review Committee, she said she would still be active in championing the law. Worl has nominated Irene Dundas from Saxman to replace her on the committee.
“I’m hoping that I will be replaced by another Alaskan since we do have over 200 tribes in this state,” Worl said. “I just think that we should be there.”
Whoever replaces Worl will have to deal with the continued effects of flat federal funding for NAGPRA claims. Worl said she hasn’t seen an increase in funding during her tenure on the board and she doesn’t think it will happen any time soon.
“It’ll be a long time with sequestration,” Worl said, laughing. “Repatriation is kind of the low man on the totem pole.”