IN a basement room on the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill, archaeologist Vin Steponaitis studies a gray ceramic pot recently excavated from an ancient native American burial site. The pot had been buried with its owner, as was the practice of the early Occaneechi Indians whose descendants still live in the area. As director of the university's archaeological laboratories, Dr. Steponaitis oversees an extensive archive of native American artifacts, including numerous skeletal remains and funerary objects collected over the past 50 years. He says scientists examine such materials for clues to the ``lifeways'' of the South's early inhabitants.
``By examining the bones and taking certain kinds of measurements, one can learn about patterns of disease and general health,'' Steponaitis says. ``We've also learned a tremendous amount about diet and how it correlates with life expectancy.''
But Indian rights activists have long protested such research on the skeletons and cultural materials of their ancestors and put pressure on Congress to stop it. Last month, President Bush signed unprecedented legislation designed to return many skeletal remains, funerary objects, and ceremonial materials held in federally funded museum and university collections to those living tribes culturally affiliated with them.
Members of the native American, scientific, museum, and legislative communities spent at least four years debating the merits of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act. With its passage, each institution must notify tribes regarding items with which they may be affiliated and return those requested by tribal officials.
One of the act's most outspoken proponents, Cheyenne/Creek Indian Susan Harjo, sees the return of such materials as vital to the future of America's nearly 600 federally registered Indian tribes. She points to a ``high suicide rate among native American teenagers'' as an indication of low tribal morale caused in part, she says, by the desecration of traditional burial practices and religious beliefs.
``In the case of the museum and scientific community, they have considered us and our objects from cradle to grave and beyond as their property,'' Ms. Harjo says from her office at the Morningstar Foundation in Washington, D.C. ``I think that [in this legislation] there are a lot of opportunities for healing and a cooperative effort.''
Many museum officials now agree, acknowledging in some cases that native American exhibits were often mounted and materials collected without any consultation with tribal members.
As executive director of the American Association of Museums, Ed Abel, says that the process of drafting the legislation, and its final passage, has brought a ``new awareness to scientists.''
``Collections, many years ago, may have been developed in ways that we would find unacceptable today,'' Mr. Abel says. ``I don't think that perhaps anthropologists and archaeologists were as aware as they are today of the need for and the benefits from working with native Americans when they were dealing with materials from that culture.''
In the meantime, Steponaitis and his laboratory colleagues have begun to inventory and document the skeletal remains and funerary objects in their native American collection, in preparation for possible repatriation.
In what he calls a ``compromise,'' worked out before the federal bill was passed, Steponaitis says the Eno-Occaneechi Indians have agreed to allow the university to study their ancestors' remains, like the recently excavated funerary pot, before returning them once research is completed.
``Because in part we've dedicated our scholarly lives to understanding the histories of Indian peoples,'' Steponaitis says, ``the last thing we want to do is to be offensive to Indian peoples.''