Do we have to be dead & dug up from the ground to be worthy of respect?
November 20, 2017 5:28 PM   Subscribe

Native Americans had long tried to prevent the theft of their dead. But it was not until the 1960s, in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, that activists turned collections into a question of conscience: Why were U.S. museums filled almost exclusively with the bones of Native Americans? “When a white man’s grave is dug up, it’s called grave robbing,” as the Tohono O’odham activist Robert Cruz said in 1986. “But when an Indian’s grave is dug up, it’s called archaeology.”
The long ethical arc of displaying human remains: A look at why museums exhibit Egyptian mummies, but not Native American bones, by Chip Colwell.
posted by Rumple (27 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah, even when I was eight years old and really into egyptology, it seemed unconscionable that Carter broke into Tutankhamun's tomb.

Our rituals of death are fundamental to our humanity, and to cast them aside because they are old or foreign is to sacrifice that humanity. Every grave is sacred.

On the other hand, I've been to see Body Worlds and t doesn't bother me in the slightest. It's just another death ritual, and this ritual involves being gawked at in a museum, so I am helping fulfill their desires by gawking.
posted by 256 at 5:57 PM on November 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'd sooner respect the topsoil than a dead person's grave, which, ironically, leads to exactly the same outcome: leaving the bodies where they are.
posted by turbid dahlia at 6:30 PM on November 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

Thank you! This is exactly what I was wondering about with respect to bog bodies and the Griffin Warrior. I knew Metafilter would be the place to find answers and discussion!
posted by Princess Leopoldine Grassalkovich nee Esterhazy at 6:51 PM on November 20, 2017

I have very strong feelings about not disturbing graves, and it leads to funny arguments where people try to pull gotchas by bringing up increasingly ancient people. "Well, what about ancient Egyptians?" or "what about Neanderthals?" and so on. It's a topic that seems to infuriate people, and they'll call you anti-science, or superstitious, or just plain stupid. "They're just bodies, they don't have opinions!" At some point you just have to say, look, I don't know what to tell you, but I've given this a lot of thought, and I have a pretty consistent logic here.

It's a topic that still seems to divide archaeology. I'm a little surprised the article didn't mention the African Burial Ground controversy, because I gather it was kind of a watershed moment in the field. It's kind of a textbook example of how not to conduct research, because it prioritized the potential revelations from the find over the actual people buried there. Even in death, these slaves couldn't escape exploitation. And it is, frankly, exploitation to conduct research like that.

Even when there doesn't appear to be a direct descendant community, there's still an ethical problem, because obviously identifying and connecting with a descendant community is difficult, time consuming, and hardly foolproof. The Kennewick Man controversy was another total nightmare for the field, with scholars fighting tooth and nail to "prove" that this person was not, in fact, an ancestor of the community that was claiming him as such. It was totally slimy, and not at all a good look. It's ultimately antithetical to the mission of archaeology if your research is to be conducted that way, because really, what's the point of conducting this research if you do it in a way that's actively harmful to people, especially the primary stakeholders in that history and heritage? It's not enough to seek out knowledge for the sake of it, if it's going to bring harm.

Anyway, I don't personally ever feel comfortable excavating graves or human remains, and I don't feel comfortable seeing them on display without permission. It doesn't line up with how I view burials as cultural practices, and it doesn't line up with what I think is an ethical approach to research. If people expect that they will be buried and left to rest forever, I don't want to violate that belief just because I could learn something. For me, I've seriously considered the importance of my scholarly or intellectual curiosity against the importance of their beliefs, and I don't feel comfortable making the decision unilaterally. I'd rather risk being the one losing out, if the alternative is disrespecting someone's grave. It's all that's left of their entire life, and I think that deserves consideration.

I think I'm in the minority. I was at a conference a couple years ago where someone was talking about excavating a graveyard in the Southwest. I didn't appreciate seeing graves reduced to quantifiable data, and I didn't think they'd practiced due diligence in trying to track down the descendants, but no one else seemed too upset. The researchers justified their actions on the grounds that this was private land. I don't think that's a compelling reason to disturb someone's resting place, but like I said, I guess I'm in the minority here.

Anyway, long rant, sorry. Like I said, I have strong feelings about this.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 7:07 PM on November 20, 2017 [17 favorites]

The article says that Body Worlds now only uses willingly donated cadavers, but that wasn't always the case--and that only changed when they were called out on it. And there are several similar exhibits (BODIES, etc.) that still use bodies of tortured and executed Chinese prisoners and unclaimed homeless people. BW also sells bits of plastinates, some to the public at large.
posted by lovecrafty at 7:07 PM on November 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

For Native Americans, the collection of their ancestors for museums has been an affront to their sense of dignity and spiritual beliefs. The repatriation of these remains is perhaps a minimum concession to that sense of self, culture, and continuity. As Apache/Nahuatl activist José Rivera once asked, “Do we have to be dead and dug up from the ground to be worthy of respect?”

Tom King puts it this way:

Whites have always been comfortable with Dead Indians. General Phil Sheridan, famous for inventing the scorched-earth tactics used in “Sherman’s March to the Sea,” is reputed to have said, “The only good Indian I ever saw was a dead one.” Sheridan denied saying this, but Theodore Roosevelt filled in for him. In a speech in New York in 1886, some sixteen years before he became president of the United States, Roosevelt said, “I sup- pose I should be ashamed to say that I take the Western view of the Indian. I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

From the frequency with which Dead Indians appear in advertising, in the names of businesses, as icons for sports teams, as marketing devices for everything from cleaning products to underwear, and as stalking goats for New Age spiritual flimflam, you might think that Native people were a significant target for sales. We’re not, of course. We don’t buy this crap. At least not enough to support such a bustling market. But there’s really no need to ask whom Dead Indians are aimed at, is there?


All of which brings us to Live Indians.

Among the many new things that Europeans had to deal with upon their arrival in the North American wilderness were Live Indians. Live Indians, from an Old World point of view, were an intriguing, perplexing, and annoying part of life in the New World.

My son’s girlfriend, Nadine Zabder, a meat science major, once told me: “You can’t herd them. They won’t follow. And they’re too heavy to lift.” Nadine was talking about sheep, but she could have been talking about Indians, for the same general sentiment appears in early journals and reports. The good news, the writers agreed, was that they were dying off in large numbers.

Indians. Not sheep.

posted by mandolin conspiracy at 7:08 PM on November 20, 2017 [9 favorites]

All the funerary practices of the ancient Egyptians, from the earliest Pharaonic times to the Roman period, shared a common goal: to make the dead to live again through preservation. The part that people crowd in to see is the preserved body, but what was paramount to them was the preserved name. They wanted to be remembered. In earlier periods, the Egyptian dead had external tomb shrines, where their families came to pray and leave offerings. In the Roman period, it appears that the elaborately decorated portrait mummies were in fact publicly displayed. So it has never troubled me, over the years of study, that Egyptian mummies are exhibited. The Egyptian dead would no doubt have preferred to be untroubled into eternity, but failing that, I think they would generally be pleased to hear their names on the lips of dozens of strangers every day.

This is the polar opposite of the case with the Native American burial practices, and I am always glad to see a reckoning there. And -- I was just thinking about this the other day -- must the poor Soap Lady lie in the Mutter forever? She was not a queen, she didn't come from a lost culture; she was just a nineteenth-century lady who was stout around the middle, and got preserved by it.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:09 PM on November 20, 2017 [10 favorites]

I was hoping the article would touch a bit on incorruptibility (CW: dead bodies), which is slightly different, but maybe closer to how Egyptian remains are treated than Native Americans.
posted by LionIndex at 7:21 PM on November 20, 2017

All I can think of is the slogan from my current osteology class, which I suppose my fellow mefites would call me a monster for even studying. Mortui vivos docent. The dead teach the living. We have a long way to go in anthropology before we make up for how our discipline has treated, and in some cases, continues to treat indigenous peoples. But to put a blanket prohibition on studying remains? That's not a solution. There has to be a middle ground.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 7:22 PM on November 20, 2017 [8 favorites]

Assigning motivations to a group of (dead) people as a way to justify some present action seems pretty dubious to me. "Ancient Egyptians" comprises literally thousands of years of diverse culture. Many of them probably wouldn't want to be exhibited, not that we can ask them.
posted by dilaudid at 7:32 PM on November 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

I was just re-reading L.M. Montgomery's A Tangled Web this morning and in it one of her characters has what she describes as "a harmless hobby of collecting skulls down at the old Indian graveyard down at Big Friday Cove and ornamenting the fence of his potato plot with them".

She does have another character object to this practice as "indecent and unnatural and unchristian", but somehow I doubt that Montgomery would have described such a "hobby" as being "harmless" if he'd been using white people's skulls to decorate his potato plot fence, or that it would have been presented as being tolerated by the larger community portrayed in the novel.
posted by orange swan at 7:33 PM on November 20, 2017 [8 favorites]

So where's the cutoff?
posted by runcibleshaw at 7:38 PM on November 20, 2017

Remains from 145 Indigenous ancestors in storage at University of Winnipeg:

Remains from about 145 Indigenous people are currently in storage at the university, according to a University of Winnipeg statement sent to CBC News. They range from a single tooth or bone fragment to a partial or complete skeleton.

The university says most of the remains were unearthed by third parties, who transferred responsibility for them to the school.

In this case there are living relatives who are saying "Are you fucking kidding me?"
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 7:44 PM on November 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

I think some of the reason I'm sensitive about this is that being in California, we have fairly good rules in place so that the stuff in the Winnipeg article doesn't happen here. We have fairly good repatriation laws and adhere very strictly to NAGPRA. Or at least try too. We also have stuff in place so that we can work with descendant tribes so that remains and sites can be studied together with the surviving tribes so that descendant tribes can learn things about their ancestors they might not know due to years of not being allowed to know their own history. Its not perfect, but we're trying to be better.
Mortui vivos docent.
But yeah, other states and other countries don't follow the rules so well.
the display of Mummies never sat right with me though. That has more to do with very much not wanting to see a corpse though. I feel like scientifically studying mummies or bones to learn more about an ancient civilization that has a lot of mysteries due to extreme time difference is ok, but god, displaying the corpse?
That being said, when I see the replica of Lucy at the Academy of Sciences I feel transported. Like i'm looking into the past and seeing evolution itself. For some reason bones don't bother me as much.
But in my Osteology class when we started learning how to do age-at-death estimations, and I realized the skull I was studying had likely died at an age younger than me. That messed me up for a day.
We can study the dead, we just have to make sure we remember they were people.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 7:54 PM on November 20, 2017 [8 favorites]

My husband headed up our state historic preservation agency for about six years and was responsible for overseeing local graves and bodies of more than 100 years dead, AMA.

In general, Native Americans hold a pretty broad variety of opinions on bones-on-display, and it depends strongly on what tribe you're dealing with, how good your relationship is with them, and where the body was and what you want to do with it. Illinois has basically no extant tribes, and a very good relationship with its descendant tribes, and struggles to find Native American groups to claim bodies that are found during freeway excavations (one of the most common surprise finding times). They get a lot of "Well, they might be ours, but probably not? And it sounds like pretty interesting archaeology, you should totally study that death wound." It's hella more tense in Washington state, for example, where there's a long history of the state being disrespectful to existing and active tribes. In Illinois, archaeology has mostly said, "Whoa, hey, your tribal legends are true and you WERE here 10,000 years ago, how neat!" with no land claim issues; whereas on the West Coast there's a lot more "Your tribal legends are bunk and we need your land right now for the logs, the sweet sweet logs."

"The researchers justified their actions on the grounds that this was private land."

I mean that's a legal distinction, archaeological finds on public lands are covered by one set of laws, private lands by a separate set.

Remains from 145 Indigenous ancestors in storage at University of Winnipeg:

I don't know about Winnipeg's particular problems, but in the US, states are obligated by law to respectfully hold remains that are dug up (often by surprise when laying a freeway or building a new building, and it runs across a Native burial ground or a European settler burial ground or just a random single dude buried) and follow very strict legal procedures regarding holding them or returning them to ancestral tribes. It's tedious but (in the US) the detailed, take-forever rules come from ugly disputes where Native Americans got screwed and the law now respects their claims and is super, duper careful about those claims, which means it's tedious and slow. Again, it makes a huge difference how well a state/province/government entity has done in the past -- states that have built relationships with their Native tribes and have shown respect and consideration get a lot more leeway than states that have been dicks. Sounds like Winnipeg maybe has a history of dickishness.

Anyway, it all makes me think of how, for example, Richard III was on display for people's curiosity and scholarly interest, because he was a hell of a find!, but with a Catholic priest by his side to ensure he was treated as a person, not as a thing to be gawked at.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:02 PM on November 20, 2017 [14 favorites]

I think some of the reason I'm sensitive about this is that being in California, we have fairly good rules in place so that the stuff in the Winnipeg article doesn't happen here. We have fairly good repatriation laws and adhere very strictly to NAGPRA.

The big problem with NAGPRA is that it only applies to federally recognized tribes, and only on federal or tribal lands. In California, many, many tribes are still not federally recognized. In fact, there are no federally recognized tribes or tribal lands along the entire coast between Sonoma Co and San Diego, even though this was historically one of the most densely populated areas of North America, and there are descendant groups all over. So you've got huge swathes of California, and tons of people, for whom NAGPRA doesn't apply.

The other problem in California is that although there are some decent protections in place now, there have been massive collections of human remains and grave goods since the turn of the century. Repatriation is a slow, difficult process, and there are many ways it can get screwed up. The Hearst Museum at UC Berkeley, which is in some ways a great anthropology museum, has a horrible reputation when it comes to repatriation, because they've been awful at consulting with tribes about their ancestors' remains. I think it's better than it used to be, but I've heard some horror stories. So it can be pretty thorny here in California, too.

I don't think osteologists are monsters, and I know more than a few. A lot of this is just a line that I, personally, don't want to cross, and I've taken an approach to research that lets me avoid ever having to do it. I think most archaeologists I know have excavated graves, although more than a few, I think, have said they wouldn't do it today. And yeah, there are tribes who aren't at all opposed to studying human remains; and of course there are a few Native archaeologists, too. I should be clear that my broader objections are specifically to graves where there has been no consent, or it goes against someone's beliefs, or the issues around beliefs or consent are unclear. I don't think digging someone up is inherently wrong, but it certainly deserves extraordinary sensitivity.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 8:47 PM on November 20, 2017 [4 favorites]

Burial is done for the family and thus some dead belong to their living extended family (is how I've usually thought of where the lines are drawn).
posted by atoxyl at 9:34 PM on November 20, 2017

There's a scene at the beginning of one of Tony Hillerman's books where the curator of an old-fashioned archaeological museum receives a large package delivered anonymously to his doorstep one night. When he cuts it open ... there's his grandma. He can tell because the sender included the grave stone, and her corpse hasn't completely decayed yet.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 10:40 PM on November 20, 2017 [4 favorites]

This article is timely and resonates with a very special repatriation of remains that occurred this week. The oldest known man in Australia, Mungo Man, was returned to his country after 43 years away, and 40,000 years after interment.
It started out in an industrial complex carpark – hardly fitting, it seemed, for a man who helped us redefine our understanding of human history – but this was the repository for treasured artefacts that were held in collection by the Australian National Museum.

Hemmed in by a Bunnings trade warehouse, kitchen joinery workshops and automative businesses, it was the place from which the remains of Australia’s oldest known man, Mungo Man, began a three-day, 800km journey back to country

The first port of call was Wagga Wagga, a 250km run down the Hume Highway from Canberra into New South Wales’s Riverina district where a previously unscheduled ceremony and welcome to country was held for the 40,000-year-old cargo.

So precious to his descendants is Mungo Man, and the other 104 sets of ancestral remains accompanying him on this spiritual journey back home, that a security guard was hired to stand throughout the night over the vintage Chrysler hearse that carried him. [Photo essay]
The locator of Mungo Man, Jim Bowler, was at the repatriation ceremony. In an article earlier this week, Bowler blames the Enlightenment for Aboriginal Australians' ongoing struggle for recognition and respect.
For Bowler, his discovery of Mungo Man was the ultimate clash of modernity and intuition; a moment that crystallises everything unresolved in black-white Australia.

“We are dealing with the conflict of white rational, sophisticated science enlightened by the bloody Enlightenment, translated into an Aboriginal land ... with an Aboriginal people with an entirely intuitive and empathetic relationship with country,” he says.

“That Enlightenment was superimposed both on a country they [the ‘enlightened’] didn’t understand and a people they didn’t understand ... and we now carry the burden of the fucking Enlightenment. This is because the purely rational mind is incapable of understanding what Aboriginal people are fundamentally on about.”
In other news, Pemulwuy's head is still missing despite royal involvement in the hunt.
posted by Thella at 12:25 AM on November 21, 2017 [6 favorites]

mummies were gathered to glorify ancient Egyptians while Native American skeletons were long collected to dehumanize indigenous peoples

This is a crucial piece. When mummies, bog bodies, or even Richard III are displayed, it's to show the glory of the past, most often by people connected to that past. The robbing of burial sites and desecration of Native bodies that occurred in the 19th and even into the 20th century, however, were all about an already dominant outsider group stealing grandpa's bones in order to study "primitives."

That's a big part of why anthropologists today -- even if they find NAGPRA onerous and vociferously argue the details -- largely support at least the spirit of the law. Even when I was an anthro undergrad a decade ago, the emphasis was on working as much as possible with indigenous groups during excavations of both material and human remains with the aim of being partners in illuminating the past of native peoples. I distinctly remember conversations with some grad students working in Chaco Canyon that essentially stated that they thought their work would reduce prejudice towards Native Americans by showing their deep and complex histories.

The problem, as Eyebrows McGee relates, is that there are parts of the US where there might not be a clear link between excavated remains and any extant tribe. Worse, there may be a connection between a tribe and remains, but the connection is one of racism, displacement, and genocide, all things which tend to make friendly discourse somewhat more difficult. For the latter, there's reconciliation, discussion, and (hopefully) cooperation. For the former there's a certain amount of friction between physical anthropologists coming from a position that analysis of "culturally unidentifiable human remains" should not be limited to by a tenuous connection to modern groups, and Native groups which see a more fundamental connection between themselves those remains and aim to avoid continuing a history of exploitation of native people.
posted by Panjandrum at 12:39 AM on November 21, 2017 [5 favorites]

Thanks for this. I recently went to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter. They have the mummy, coffin and cartonnage of Shep-en-Mut, which they currently display in a small room which they have made look a bit like a tomb (hieroglyphs on wall, objects from tombs on display). I was interested to see that they have a notice at the entrance to the room saying something like "remember this is the body of a person and be respectful".

It's a while since I saw Lindow Man at the British Museum but I don't remember anything similar in the display of his body. There has been some discussion of whether he should be on display.
posted by paduasoy at 3:30 AM on November 21, 2017

When I Google around, I see a lot of hits for archaeologists vs. Native Americans. But do American university archaeology programs make an effort to recruit Native Americans? It seems to me Native American archaeologists could be particularly valuable members of any archaeology team, whether the dig was a native site or otherwise. They could represent dig teams to tribes and tribes to dig teams.
posted by pracowity at 4:34 AM on November 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thank you Thella - I was going to make a post on that timely event too. This has been an emotional week for many aboriginal people in Australia.

The undercurrent of these archeological events is comparable to the colonising process of totalising scrutiny. Collecting, objectifying and invasive documenting of the curiosity/Other in life and death is something aboriginal peoples the world over experience from colonising entities with endless currency.

What makes me against the removal of remains from their site of interment is the story of Truganini, Tasmania's last Palawa woman, who died in 1876. In 1869 there were only three aboriginal people left on the island and they attracted a great deal of interest from scientists, who hoped to find the missing link between human and apes. When the last man, William Lanner, died, his body was fought over by several teams of doctors. They took and stole from each other various parts of his body. One doctor made a pouch out of Lanner's skin. Truganini was horrified when she heard of this post mortem mutilation, she begged to be buried at sea. It took 100 years for her remains to be removed from the Tasmanian Museum, cremated and scattered at sea, as she had requested. It is one example of a voice of the objectified curiosity speaking clearly to us, me anyway.
posted by honey-barbara at 5:29 AM on November 21, 2017 [5 favorites]

It's a while since I saw Lindow Man at the British Museum but I don't remember anything similar in the display of his body.

On that, I loved this blog post mentioned in the earlier MeFi post on bog bodies linked upthread: modern offerings for Lindow Man.
posted by Catseye at 6:08 AM on November 21, 2017

My hometown has the ongoing disgrace of the Philippi mummies. I paid to see them years ago, and sincerely wish I hadn't.
posted by Perodicticus potto at 6:20 AM on November 21, 2017

Sometimes it just takes a little more effort to find descendants.
posted by elsietheeel at 6:35 AM on November 21, 2017

Even within tribes it's fucking complicated.

Disclaimer: I'm first generation descendant (translation: my mom is on the roll of a federally recognized tribe but I'm not as of yet) of one of the tribes listed in that article, research my post history if you want to find out which, and debated posting it here at all lest it paint one side or the other in a bad light but I think it really does do a decent job of showing how complex things can be even between two tribal entities. It's all a result of the giant dump that folks took upon native peoples in the past and we're all that's left trying to pickup the pieces and make our way as best we can, even when it's complicated and ugly.

I mean, seriously, just within that single article you have:

- Legal mayhem of terrible proportions, from the historical forced evictions of some while some others worked alongside the oppressing party in a bid to survive and stay on their land to legal battles of the latter to even gain federal recognition AFTER they were the cooperative/good indians (for lack of a better wording) to attempts from both entities to gain, as they see it from their perspective, what they want and need in the modern world of local, state, and federal law.
- One tribe calling another tribe's members '"questionable" Indians' altogether. How fucked is that?
- The other tribe developing in a, perhaps, insensitive manner up to and including admitted potential grave desecrations, despite their handwavey attempts to not look like villans. That's fucked too.
- An overarching craving for fairness and economic stability in a modern world that has traditionally deprived BOTH tribes of anything approaching a fair shot at preserving their members' well being and cultural heritage.

It's complicated.
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:05 AM on November 21, 2017 [6 favorites]

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