Blocked by the courts, the tribes are now seeking a far-reaching political fix. They’ve enlisted the help of McCain, who has just shepherded a bill through his Senate Indian Affairs Committee. It’s actually a big piece of Indian legislation — one of those monster bills that almost nobody bothers to read from front to end. Tucked away in a hidden corner, the NAGPRA revision involves just a pair of words. Yet they would change everything.
Here’s how the law currently reads:“Native American” means of, or relating to, a tribe, people, or culture that is indigenous to the United States.
Here’s the proposed revision:“Native American” means of, or relating to, a tribe, people, or culture that is or was indigenous to the United States.
Those two words — “or was” — would transform the meaning of NAGPRA. To paraphrase a famous former Washingtonian, they would alter what the meaning of “is” is.
“If this becomes law, then anything prehistoric that’s found on federal land would have to be given up,” says Alan Schneider, a Portland, Ore., lawyer who has litigated the Kennewick Man case.