Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Laws under review for fossils on native land

Questions raised over fate of non-human remains.

A push is underway, in the heartland of US dinosaur-hunting country, to introduce new laws to regulate the fate of non-human fossils found on Native American lands.

The drive, initiated in Nebraska, is to create legislation similar to that controlling the handling and repatriation of Native American human remains, the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Nebraska was the first state to enact a law on native human remains, even before the federal act had been passed.

On 2 November, the Lincoln-based Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs is to consider options for a state law covering non-human fossils found on Native American lands. The commission may pass a resolution for a law, or even prepare draft legislation, says Judi Gaiashkibos, the commission's executive director.

Suspicion of scientists and their way of dealing with fossils runs deep among Native American political leaders. ?Some scientists still do things deceptively,? says Gaiashkibos. ?To me, it is exploitation.?

Lawrence Bradley's campaign for tribal involvement has helped to revamp plans for managing Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Credit: L. BRADLEY

A complex patchwork of federal and local regulations currently governs fossils found on Native American lands. The lands themselves are a diverse collection of reservation land, land held in trust and privately owned land within a reservation. Palaeontologists routinely work with local tribes, and sometimes Native American students participate in the excavations. Nebraska already has a requirement for scientists to consult with tribes.

But such requirements don't go far enough, argues Lawrence Bradley, a doctoral geography student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. ?In the past, the paradigm was, it was okay to go onto native lands, pull out fossils and have them in a museum for 150 years,? he says. ?I see myself as an ambassador for science, while creating opportunity for Native Americans.?

Last week, Bradley presented a poster on what he called questionable collection practices at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in Austin, Texas. These were mostly historical instances of tribes not being consulted by researchers before fossils were removed.

Married to a Mescalero Apache, Bradley is a passionate ? some say confrontational ? advocate for Native American rights. For instance, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which has a fossil collection from the western plains dating from the 1800s, recently declined his requests for physical access to fossils after it was concluded that his correspondence seemed to be threatening to repatriate the fossils. The museum instead pointed him to online databases that it said would provide the information he requested.

Bradley is now lobbying US senators and various agencies ? such as the National Park Service, which has responsibility for some Indian lands ? to provide more consultation with tribal leaders before newly discovered fossils are released to scientists for study.

His campaign is now bearing some fruit. A new management plan is being considered by National Park Service regional officials for the south unit of Badlands National Park, which covers 540 square kilometres of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Currently, the National Park Service has an agreement with the reservation's Oglala Sioux under which tribal members are consulted about the fate of fossils found on their lands. But it was deemed to be insufficient, so discussions have begun with a view to including fossil discoveries in the park's new 20-year plan, says Rachel Benton, a palaeontologist with the park service. As geological formations there date to about 50 million years ago, the primary impact would be largely on mammal fossils, Benton says.

Although there was many a furrowed brow to be seen in front of Bradley's poster ? which referred to ?grave desecration? by pioneering scientific explorers ? some palaeontologists saw advantages in his proposals. One such idea was to create tribal museums, where fossils from Native American lands could be displayed.

?It would be a great idea for teaching natural history to kids,? says Lawrence Flynn, an assistant director at Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Daniel Chaney, a palaeobiologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, recalled that as a youth he worked with renowned collectors for the American Museum who would consult with tribal councils, often in the tribe's native language. ?They always went to the landowner,? Chaney says.


Related links

Related links

Related external links

Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs

National Park Service site on NAGPRA

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Dalton, R. Laws under review for fossils on native land. Nature 449, 952 (2007).

Download citation


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing