Wednesday, October 28, 2009


The ever on-going discussion and actual events around Native American artifacts have gotten tragically heated, resulting in arrests, jail terms, suicides and rented trucks carrying away literal tons of materials. Most people either have nearly violent opinions or can’t figure out what the heck to think.

In the past I’ve tried to sort through the issues according the points of view of the people involved: innocent whites, conniving whites, earnest Indians, scheming Indians -- like that. But it ends up with a lot of name-calling, so I thought I’d try a new approach: discussion according to the type of artifact. The items lumped into the category really are quite different.

1. Skeletons

The very fact that indigenous skeletons are considered collectible is a key to the problem. I remember vividly my undergrad biology lab class where a skeleton hung. While we waited for our instructor one wintry day we decided to warm up the bones by putting hat, muffler and mittens on it. When the young handsome teacher came, he was indignant. “This was SOMEONE,” he scolded us. “You’re treating this person like an object, a hat rack, a toy. If you are handling human remains, you must do so with deep respect!”

No other artifact is actual human remains except maybe scalps with skin attached. When we treat human remains with disrespect, we are saying they are like animals, whose bones everyone treats like the meat once attached. Useful, discardable, of no deep importance.

The funerary practice of prairie tribes was to leave the wrapped body in a high place, like a tree or a shallow cave on a cliff or just on a high ridge. The body was usually wrapped in a buffalo robe and the person’s belongings were left with it. This was practical because there were no metal shovels for digging into the ground, the ultraviolet light of high elevations (Browning is at about 5,000 feet) was an effective disinfectant, the belongings were mostly organic, and the constant dry winds and temperature extremes also tended to mummify. Most deaths probably happened in the winter when the ground was so hard that even now, for a backhoe to cut into the ground, a fire is necessary. (Used to be burning tires -- in Browning in the Sixties when you saw a column of black smoke from the cemetary, you knew someone needed to be buried -- now more likely to be a propane heater in a tent.) In early white communities winter deaths were often stored in an out-building until spring. The point is that bodies were ubiquitous, accessible, and not concentrated into a burial ground near a settlement until many decades after white presence.

The 19th century was of a magpie mind about anything collectible and bones were not spared. Much of the collecting was in the name of science, which still wanted to gather many many specimens in the interest of sorting them into categories and scrutinizing them for clues over such puzzles as “races” and “evolution” as well as evidence of what had happened to the original person. The notion of local history was coming powerfully alive because on the Western frontier it was so close, at least the history of the white displacers -- maybe because they were trying to figure out why they were there, whether it was a good thing to have done, what should happen next.

Scientific collection meant that museums and universities soon had drawers and drawers of bones, sometimes skulls long separated from bodies and sometimes entire. Gradually the scientists became able to distinguish between male and female; Caucasian and Asian and African; young or old; and various forensic features like violence or disease. As time goes on, things like nutritional status and radioisotope identification of elements have become detectable.

This has been extremely valuable, to the point that today’s CSI scientists are actually willing to put corpses out in the woods and document their decay. Not just pigs. A recent example in a story was an eight-year-old boy. It was unclear where he came from. He was not alive and suffering, of course, but this sort of cold-blooded treatment of human remains in the interest of science is particularly chilling to indigenous prairie people -- not just because of the disrespect to a “soul” in the Christian sense though many are practicing and believing Christians, but also because in the old days one did not hang around a body lest whatever killed that individual also reach out to grab YOU. Some expressed this as the fear that the spirit of the dead person would be very angry and take it out on you for not saving them or for provoking them while they were alive.

Today we have situations like the morticians who were not cremating bodies but simply dumping them in the woods, giving the relatives ashes from any source, or more recently the cemetery keepers who were digging up old graves, dumping the contents and re-selling the spaces to new families. The shock of these acts strike everyone as far more than a commercial transaction based on deception. Sacrilege is a intense experience even in a desacralized society. As Mary Roach describes in “Stiff,” we are losing that distinction, partly due to the constant closeup knowledge of bodies on TV and partly due to family doctors going to conferences where they alternate playing golf with taking surgery lessons on parts of humans that arrive in coolers: arms, internal organs, and sexual parts. On a reservation few know that. It is a very upper-class privileged sort of phenomenon.

Religious defense of bodies is weak now. It waxes and wanes over the centuries. The more dead there are, the more they are not “us,” the thinner the consciousness.

Parallel to the scientific advances that invent more and more subtle tests of bone and ways to learn from them, political opposition from the indigenous people has grown stronger, not just the desire to protect one’s own from indecency, but also as a protest against the constant tendency to make whole sets of living people into lesser beings, deserving of less respect than the “ruling classes” (prosperous, high-status men -- these days of any race), who can properly be “studied” like guinea pigs.

This tendency to indulge in de-humanizing study is strong in sophisticated academic circles. People come to the reservation to study the indigenous people, take their statistics and findings back to the academy, analyze them in sophisticated ways, publish findings that may affect things like funding, and never bother to send copies back to the original people who were studied any more than they would send copies of a study of cattle to the cows themselves.

(to be continued)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is excellent and instructive. I have archaeologist friends who are torn to pieces by current practices and changing legalities. I have other friends who deeply believe in each of the views you carefully enumerate. Thank you for visiting each view.