Ethics with an Asterisk: Anthropology's Conditional Respect of American Indians


There still remains a group of Anthropologists who obsess over the peopling of the Americas.  Popular media soaks these published theories up and wrings them out upon the uneducated masses who use said articles as biblical text written to justify Manifest Destiny.  These publications have tremendous impacts on the resource rights of Tribes and often times are undermined by new theories.  Yet, little has been done to rectify failed theories or criticize failed theorists. Popular media ignores instances where scientists have been wrong and cost Tribes access to their resources.  In a world so quick to call out every nuance of celebrity behavior, there seems to be a double standard in coverage of failed academic "discoveries".  Academia has had significant impacts on Tribes and their resources, yet there is no recourse for those who have denied Tribes access based on failed theories.  They simply aren't talked about except for whispers in University Department offices and hallways.  Sure there is room for criticism in academic journal articles, which is great....if you have access, which most Tribes don't.

So, at what point are scientists and the media held accountable for inaccuracies that have had tremendous impacts on Tribes?  Tribes have little to no voice in academia, and even those educated Native academics are questioned, doubted, ignored and their credentials devalued when object criticism is due.  If not now, when? And who is educated and credentialed enough to get said academics to listen?  The more I explore this topic, the more questions I have.   

For guidance, I turn to the Code of Ethics for the American Anthropology Association.  Under part III, section A, Number 1 there is a specific section regarding this issue:

A. Responsibility to people and animals with whom anthropological researchers work and whose lives and cultures they study.

1. Anthropological researchers have primary ethical obligations to the people, species, and materials they study and to the people with whom they work. These obligations can supersede the goal of seeking new knowledge and can lead to decisions not to undertake or to discontinue a research project when the primary obligation conflicts with other responsibilities, such as those owed to sponsors or clients. These ethical obligations include:

• To avoid harm or wrong, understanding that the development of knowledge can lead to change which may be positive or negative for the people or animals worked with or studied

• To respect the well-being of humans and nonhuman primates

• To work for the long-term conservation of the archaeological, fossil, and historical records

• To consult actively with the affected individuals or group(s), with the goal of establishing a working relationship that can be beneficial to all parties involved

The study of the peopling of the Americas is in direct violation of all parts of this Code of Ethics.  Tribes have never asked for nor has they been consulted on this study, the results of which have contributed to violence, racial oppression, loss of basic rights to ancestral human remains, food and religion, loss of Treaty Rights and loss of ancestral homelands just to name a few.  

Future academics need to be aware of the impact their research will have on Tribes.  They need to consult with the Tribe with which they are studying and need to understand the scientific questions relevant to them.  There are problems Tribes face that affect everyone, and they are making efforts to plan for future impacts.  The remains and artifacts left behind were not created for the fame of a few, they were left for a reason and until that reason is explored in consultation with Tribes, scientists have an ethical obligation to leave their economic aspirations aside.  

To read the full Code of Ethics for the AAA click here


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