Ethical Considerations: When Epistemological Systems Collide


A researcher who is interested in studying the human remains of members of the Pisha Peoples believes his research will be extremely useful to current tribe members even though members of that community oppose his research due to their traditional beliefs. Though the researcher has approval from his institutional review board, does he need the consent of the community to continue his research?


The Detsi National Forest (N.F.) is located in the central Grand Flats of the United States.  At first European contact, the Pisha Peoples inhabited this area, and according to their tribal experts, their people have lived there since time immemorial.  In the late 19th century, the Pisha were subjected to U.S. cavalry extermination campaigns, and the survivors were forcibly marched away from their homelands to a reservation belonging to their traditional enemies. After several years, some of the Pisha returned to their homelands forming a distinct non-federally recognized tribal community on the outskirts of the local Euro-American town.

The Pisha have continued to lobby for the return of their lands and for greater protections of their ancestors’ remains and sacred spaces.  Many Native American tribes including the Pisha have publicly voiced outrage at the differential treatment of skeletal remains based on their perceived “race.”  Because the Pisha’s land is now federally owned, their ancestors’ remains are now federal property.  The Antiquities Act of 1906 declares as “artifacts” and property of the federal government any anthropic materials determined to be 100 years old or older found on federal lands. This Act defined “artifacts” to include materials associated with North American indigenous cultures within the United States including Native American skeletal remains.

Traditional Pishas know that physical death is not the end of an individual’s consciousness.  They assert that persons are comprised of physical and metaphysical parts that remain dependent upon one another for well-being even after the death of an individual’s physical body.  According to the Pisha, exhuming their ancestors’ human remains disturbs the flow of consciousness between the physical and metaphysical parts of the individuals causing them great harm.

The traditional Pisha assert that living tribal members have a moral imperative to do all that they can to protect the well being of their ancestors.  They also know that returning exhumed burials to the ground at or near where the remains came from will begin the healing process.  The flow between metaphysical and physical parts of the being will eventually reach some degree of restoration.  Traditional Pishas have a moral imperative to return their ancestors’ remains to the ground and failure to do so will cause living Pishas physical and spiritual illness. Destruction of any part of the human remains will result in irreparable harm to the deceased.

Darby is a bio-archaeologist proposing to conduct both destructive and non-destructive analysis on sets of human remains that have been exhumed from the Detsi N.F.  Darby’s work has the potential to provide a variety of western scientific information including reconstruction models providing a narrative of the diet of these individuals and the diseases to which they were exposed.  Darby believes his work also has the potential to assist living Pishas and others to overcome some contemporary illnesses.  Darby has received consent from the Detsi N.F. (U.S. Department of Agriculture), and his university’s Institutional Review Board to move forward with his research, but he first wants to make certain he has carefully considered the ethical aspects of his research.

Darby believes that the Western scientific method is more objectively valid than the scientific methods of non-western cultures.  While he sympathizes with the Pisha, he argues that their traditional beliefs consist of nothing more than superstitions and unsubstantiated folklore.  He sincerely believes that his work will provide greater benefits than costs to the Pisha and should therefore conduct his research despite the Pisha’s aversion to it.


  1. Even though he has the approval of his IRB to move forward with the research, does Darby have a moral obligation to obtain the consent of the Pisha before doing research on human remains of their ancestors?
  2. If the Pisha do not give their agreement, should Darby do what he thinks is of most benefit to the Pisha and for research?
  3. Even if Darby has a legal right to proceed with the research, does Darby have a moral right to weigh the benefits and burdens of his research for another culture? How would he determine the weight of the value of western scientific research for a culture which may not place the same value on scientific research compared to other cultural values?

This case presents multiple points for discussion of ethical behavior in the context of a situation with multiple stakeholders in the outcome, and even pursuit, of scientific research.  Although the case is presented from Darby’s viewpoint, there are several additional actors either evident or implied in the discussion of the case, all of whom had opportunities to make ethically relevant choices.

First, it is important to point out that, traditionally, IRBs at universities consider archaeological research and research on prehistoric remains to be exempt from review, unless the research also involves data from living peoples.  Thus, the “IRB approval” that Darby obtained would only have been in the form of an exemption, rather than an actual review of his research proposal.  The IRB assumption that living peoples have no stake in research performed on prehistoric peoples is clearly problematic. This provides an opportunity to discuss the responsibility of the university to ensure ethical treatment not only of research “subjects,” but also of other stakeholders in research performed by its faculty and students.  The public good is protected in some ways in the university environment through committees to examine use of hazardous materials, and the welfare of animal subjects is also protected by committee review.  However, is it possible for an internal review committee at a university to truly understand the viewpoints of all the relevant stakeholders?  How might one rank opposing viewpoints?

Second, an important distinction should be made between what is “legal” and what is “ethical.”  First, there are several legal aspects to this case that are not made clear.  Importantly, legislation other than the 1906 Antiquities Act apply to the human remains that Darby wishes to study. Most importantly, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA, see The Case of the Over Eager Collaborator for more detail) clearly applies to Native American remains recovered from federal land, such as the Detsi National Forest.  This act requires that these remains be assessed for affiliation with a living person or federally recognized tribe.  In this case, it is unclear whether these remains would be considered affiliated with the tribal groups living at the reservation to which the Pisha were removed in the 19th century.  This type of cultural affiliation would depend not only on the oral history of the federally recognized group, but also on the scientific and historical record (such as examples of cultural continuity in the region since the time period from which the remains were recovered). If the remains were considered culturally affiliated with the federally recognized tribe, it would be their decision alone as to the type of research, if any, Darby could perform.  However, the fact that Darby received consent from the Detsi National Forest for his research suggests that these remains are considered culturally unaffiliated to any federally recognized tribe. This situation brings up an issue that is common in the social sciences — the inadequacies of the law for dealing with socially defined groups.  NAGPRA requires federal recognition for consideration as a stakeholder in the treatment of ancestral remains and artifacts.  However, many tribes are recognized by the state but not the federal government, or are officially unrecognized. In addition, a large portion of the US population with Native American ancestry is not affiliated with any tribal group (recognized or not).  Is there any way this legislation might be changed to accommodate these other kinds of stakeholders?  If, indeed, the Pisha group that has returned to its traditional homeland were recognized under NAGPRA in some way, that would allow them a voice in the decision making process. However, if they disagreed with the federally recognized tribe regarding the treatment of the remains, it is not clear what the outcome should be. Are they more Pisha than the federally recognized tribe in some way?  Are there other important stakeholders who are unconsidered in this case (e.g. other Native American or non-Native American groups who might benefit from Darby’s research, the general US public interested in the history and prehistory of the country)? If the remains are not culturally affiliated with a particular tribe, might it be the case that any Native American tribe would be a more appropriate group to decide the fate of the remains than a non-Native American committee or individual might be?  Why might this be?  All of these questions have relevance to the policy and law makers in our country — could they have done a better job enacting legislation that made their intentions clearer, or better protected stakeholders?

In social science research, there are often many stakeholders (who might these be?).  Negotiating a research plan that protects all of their rights, which may conflict, is very difficult.  Again, some of these issues are also explored in “The Case of the Over Eager Collaborator.”

The determination of cultural affiliation as defined in NAGPRA brings to the forefront a central debate within this case — the potentially opposing viewpoints of differing epistemologies (whether scientific vs. religious, one religion vs. another, western vs. “indigenous,” etc.). NAGPRA states that cultural affiliation is to be determined by “a preponderance of the evidence based upon geographical, kinship, biological, archaeological, anthropological, linguistic, folkloric, oral traditional, historical, or other relevant information or expert opinion” (NAGPRA, Section 7a(4)).  However, since these sources of information are not only often contradictory, but also are based on differing ways of viewing the world, resolution of cultural affiliation is often impossible.  The conundrum of approaching the study of the “other” from within one’s own cultural milieu is a common obstacle for social scientists.  How can one truly understand a “foreign” culture, whose members have another way of viewing the world?  During this endeavor, how can one protect the rights of members of the “other” culture if one cannot understand their world view?  If their beliefs conflict with yours, whose rights are primary? In this case, Darby believes that his research has the potential to provide improved health not only to living Pishas, but also to the general public.  However, the living Pisha (at least those in the unrecognized group) believe that their health is actually damaged by such research, and can only be improved by reburial of the remains.  One might argue that western science finds no evidence supporting such a world view. However, recent studies do find that peoples’ mental well-being is intimately connected to their physical well-being.  In addition, one’s health is defined not only by ones physical status, but also by one’s mental status. Thus, in either light might it be the case that study of the remains would truly harm the health of the Pisha?  Should the Pisha’s health be held in higher regard than that of the general public, who might also benefit from Darby’s study?  Do the Pisha have an obligation to “humanity” to allow the study, even if it reduced their own health, if it promised to improve general health? Even if western science suggested their health could in no way be affected, should the Pisha’s beliefs still prevent Darby’s research?

In this case, the history of the interaction between groups also needs to be taken into account.  There is clear reason for the Native American group (federally recognized or not) to be wary of the motivations of 1) Federal lawmakers, 2) non-Native Americans who claim they will “help” them, 3) scientists in general, and 4)archaeologists in particular.  One also must be careful of falling into the role of the “colonialist” do-gooder who knows better than the Native Americans themselves what is best.  That said, the scientific method for studying the natural world does appear to be extremely successful.  When does, or should, the scientific method “trump” other epistemologies, both in the law and in general?  Another important question is whether science can inform ethics itself in any way.

Finally, on a more practical note, Darby plans to perform both destructive and non-destructive analyses.  It might be useful to consider these two research agendas separately. Might the non-destructive analysis be more acceptable to the Pisha and other stakeholders?  Would significant health benefits be possible with only non-destructive analysis? Might it be possible to rebury the remains after non-destructive analysis, thus satisfying the Pisha as well as advancing Darby’s research?  In fact, would a promise to rebury the remains after study (destructive as well as non-destructive) be an acceptable compromise?  Note that Darby also has an obligation to future generations to protect the integrity of these remains in case new developments allow better scientific approaches.  How does destructive analysis balance with this obligation?  How does repatriation and reburial balance with this obligation? These issues are not addressed in the case, but certainly provide avenues for further thought.

This case study brings to light some of the potential problems that can arise when people with very different belief systems interact.  It also highlights some of the issues inherent to the extreme power differentials created by colonialism.  American anthropology was born out of a colonialist ideology, and this legacy continues to complicate relationships between anthropologists and indigenous groups today.

The colonization of North America has been devastating to the continent’s indigenous populations. The westward expansion of Euro-Americans acting on the ideological assertions of manifest destiny caused the wholesale slaughter and eventual extinction of some American Indian cultural groups, and displaced many of those who survived the assaults.  The driving of the final golden railroad stake joining the Union and Pacific railroads in 1869 symbolized the opening of the west for Euro-American settlement, while the 1904 San Francisco World’s fair display “End of the Trail” emblemized prevalent Euro-American assertions that the “Indian Race” was doomed to extinction.

During and since the era of initial colonization in North America, tens of thousands of sets of historic and pre-contact indigenous human remains have been exhumed and placed in repositories around the country.  The continued possession of these human remains by federal and state agencies is viewed by some as a continuation of colonialism; first control of the living and now control of the dead.

Since passage of The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990, public attention has increasingly focused on the Indigenous dead of North America. The NAGPRA requires all federally funded repositories of Native American (as defined by the law) human remains to evaluate whether any living lineal descendents of particular sets of human remains exist, and/or whether “cultural affiliation” (as defined by the law) between a set of human remains and any “contemporarily federally recognized Native American group(s) can be reasonably identified.”  The NAGPRA provides a process for repatriation of the remains should recognized lineal descendents and/or culturally affiliated groups choose to employ it. But the NAGPRA only gives authority to federally recognized Native American groups and questions have arisen as to whether “cultural affiliation” can be identified through scientific analysis as some have assumed the NAGPRA requires.  Although the law was initially thought to support human rights, its numerous weaknesses for this purpose are becoming apparent.  Although many anthropologists support the repatriation of human remains to tribal groups, others have voiced opposition to the NAGPRA repatriation process.  The NAGPRA has sparked a renewed interest among some to conduct additional studies on these sets of human remains.

At primary issue in many contemporary conflicts between Native Americans and Western scientists is control of indigenous North American human remains.  Some indigenous North Americans have asserted their legal right and moral obligation to protect their ancestor’s remains.  These cultural groups assert that Native American dead should be given the same respect given any human.  Federal agencies assert their claim that human remains recovered from federal lands are federal property.  Some scientists argue they have a right to scientific freedom which includes performing studies on indigenous human remains.

Recent controversies regarding ancient North American human remains have often focused on questions of race.  These disputes have been further aggravated by hyperbole in the media.  Although the majority of anthropologists assert that race is a cultural construct, the “First Americans” debate has reinvigorated racism against Indigenous peoples in some communities.

A question remains as to how much can be learned from the study of pre-contact North American human remains and what importance should be placed on the potential knowledge recovered from such studies.  One should ask if Western scientists should prevail when their work has the potential to cause more harm then good.

Western belief systems dominate others due to colonialism, but is might always right?  Or, do we owe it to ourselves to question the foundations of all belief systems, including our own, before we force our ways of finding truth on others?