IN negotiating with American Indian leaders for the return of hundreds of Indian remains and burial artifacts, the Smithsonian Institution is demonstrating (under some pressure from Congress) a sensitivity to Indian culture that has often been absent in United States history. The Smithsonian holds some 35,000 Indian remains and sacred objects. As the largest such collection in the country, it's long been a focus of Indians' grievance over what they view as desecration of their ancestral burial grounds and battlefields.
Although details remain to be worked out, the Smithsonian has agreed to return on request remains and burial artifacts that can be linked with ``reasonable certainty'' to current tribes. This exceeds the wishes of some researchers, who would return remains only to direct descendants, but stops short of the wholesale relinquishment of Indian remains proposed by some museums.
The issue isn't one-sided. Besides being of interest to the public, Indian remains and artifacts have scientific importance. Their significance for historians and anthropologists is obvious. Remains also yield secrets to medical researchers and other bio-scientists. Given these interests, do the remains - often hundreds of years old - have any ``right'' to stay undisturbed? ``Grave robbing'' seems an unduly harsh characterization of the motives behind many disinterments.
But curiosity needs to be tempered with a decent respect for the past and for the dignity of the dead. Also, some of the digging has been actuated merely by a lucrative trade among collectors.
Most important, the return of ancestral remains demonstrates not just respect for the dead, but also for the living and the culture they embody. Many Indians today probably don't revere ancient skeletons so much as they resent the clinical (and sometimes greedy) detachment of white collectors - a detachment suggesting that, for many whites, Indian culture itself is just an artifact, a museum piece.
Because of legitimate scientific interest in Indian remains and artifacts, it's to be hoped that tribes will make reasonable accommodations for future examinations, photography, and temporary display of important findings, in a respectful and dignified manner.