Back to the bones.
We are constantly digging up things, including skeletons. Some on purpose, like paleontologists searching in Africa and finding the remains of eohumans that are six million years old, and others accidentally (possibly homicide victims) when making highway cuts or excavating for basements. When rationalizing their study of skeletons, scientists have proposed the idea that there is a difference between the ancient and the merely historical, but where do you draw that line? The day Columbus hit the Americas? The day the United States made itself into a nation? The day the glaciers began to withdraw from North America? The day they crucified Jesus?
The Kennewick Man, found in Washington state along the Columbia River, created a huge furor. He was older than our conventional notion of first white contact but he had characteristics that were suggestive of a Caucasian. (The characteristics recorded by scientists are expressed in percentages -- or bell curves -- but people forget that. Some Indians have skulls like Caucasians. Some Caucasians have skulls like Indians.) The local indigenous people made a claim based on religion, so some Caucasians immediately invented a religion to make a parallel claim. I attended a public meeting where the tribal spokesman asked all those present who approved of organ transplants to raise their hands. Only the white people raised their hands.
So it is not just disrespect to skeletons that is in question. American indigenous people feel that their flesh and blood is being co-opted, that the right to be one’s own body is violated by transplants, or even DNA databases from cheek scrapings. And yet there is a small contingent that demands the newest medical miracles, including stem-cell and bone marrow transplants. None among them refuses blood transfusions.
The elevation of indigenous peoples to a state transcending nobility and approaching the supernatural is so pervasive that the people themselves feel that they are carrying something special enough to be magic. It’s really being “Other” all over again, but this time elevated instead of denigrated. Recently a boy in Minnesota with cancer rejected chemotherapy and resorted to what he and his family thought were “healing” ceremonies provided (for a price) by a tribal member. And why should that person go uncompensated, any more than a formal physician should do his work for free? This is partly what it operating in the “plastic shaman” phenomenon. (And the “Indian as Super Lover” parallel. Ruth Beebe Hill’s “Hanta Yo” Ayn Rand-type perfect lover.)
Back to skeletons. Early indigenous peoples were not above using the bones of “other” humans for necklaces and the like. Esp. “found” bones rather than -- let’s say, “created bones,” that is, murdering someone to get his finger bones or ribs. Murder to get a scalp is the whole idea, since the scalping was originally evidence of death, like the ears of a wolf or the tails of gophers. Whole heads (“bring me the head of whomever”) are bulky for a walking people, but a scalp could be attached to clothing or shields. Imitation scalps abound, mostly horsetails, on fancy buckskin shirts. (It is possible to take a scalp from a person who continues to live, but that party will probably want to keep his or her hat on, particularly in cold weather.) I have never seen a blonde or redhead scalp that I can recall. Maybe I don’t want to.
I’ve run across several stories in which someone failed to stay dead, but if the bones were filleted out of the flesh and the separated parts were thrown in a river, that person DID stay dead. This story of this an artifact, though it isn’t physical.
But you can’t generalize about bones -- or any other artifacts. Objects must be related to place, to situation, to specifics. Not just for scientific purposes, but in order to understand where they came from and what they mean: context. If you read Louis Owens’ novels (a good Halloween project) you will not forget the tribal practice of a people in the hot, wet, bug-ridden south. The body of one’s brother is put in a tree. In a year one returns, takes down what is left and cleans the bones with a fingernail grown out long specifically to scrape out the crevices. Then the bones are gathered into a bundle.
[ Here are the novels, all available through the University of Oklahoma Press: Dark River, Nightland, Wolf Song, Bone Game, The Sharpest Sight. Owens is worth Googling. He was a major Steinbeck scholar as well as working on Native American literature.]
Skulls are a special case. When they are perfectly clean (and some of the ones I’ve seen are neatly numbered with India ink because they were part of collections), they attract people. Quasi-humans, they acquire names. Along with skeletons, skulls have become iconic, somehow transcending death with a universalized face of holes and grins. In catacombs (common in Europe) and the bones of genocide excavations, the skulls get lined up on shelves or in stacked piles since they are relatively uniform. They seem made of ceramic, “bone china,” mugs. Wherever there are adolescents, skulls abound along with daggers, pouring blood, snakes, lightning and other punk icons meant to suggest the power of horror. Skulls became fetishes in some South American tribes, adorned with rows of colored tile. Movies these days are full of realistic decapitations.
Prairie indigenous people were persuaded not to leave their dead in coffins on the ground where they could be knocked about by large animals and invaded by small animals. They built “dead houses,” frail wooden mausoleums with no doors, and put the coffins inside. I have seen them. The coffins had been opened and the heads were all missing, even the heads of a mother with her baby in her arms, though these were not clean skulls. These were faces and hair, even recognizable, with living descendants who knew them. Few would defend disturbing them. Those houses are gone now. The people were put into the ground and the houses were burned.
When skeletons are returned by museums, the oldest people were wary about having anything to do with them for fear their spirits would be angry and make bad things happen. So the next generation down took over and invented ceremonies of grief and appeasement. The bones were interred in the ground with Pendleton blankets, sweetgrass, other assorted objects and many salty tears. Some of the grief might have been a little dramatic, but in the end it was a true catharsis and cleaning of old wounds. It was dignified and the blankets even made it seem a bit luxurious. The bones were not in metal coffins, but in short wooden boxes, sturdy and clean.
There are still thousands of skeletons in museums public and private, in personal collections, in forgotten cabinets. We had a skull ourselves. It was a clean one. I don’t know where it came from and I don’t know where it went, but at the beginning of the Sixties it gazed out among our books. We had two skeletons: a real one from Turtox biological supply company, which was probably a person who died in the street in India and which we returned, and a plastic one cast from the skeleton of a robust German man who died long ago.
I include all sort of thoughts here because I think that in the end no legal rule or moral principle can tell us what to do about human remains. Each case must be a delicate negotiation among the facts, the emotions, the times, the politics, the individuals, the resources, the possibilities, the implications. This not just about autochthonous peoples of America or even about only autochthonous people. It is about ALL human beings.