Reflections on the practice of collecting American Indian remains. How did we become trophies?
Like many American Indians, I’ve been carefully watching the current PBS American Experience series, We Shall Remain. The series tells the history of how native peoples resisted expulsion from their lands in the United States. Unlike many movies and television shows about American Indians, however, this series includes Indian film makers, scholars and advisors including director Chris Eyre, (Cheyenne Arapaho), Director of Radio and Television Programming for Native American Public Telecommunications Shirley Sneve (Sicangu Lakota), Arizona State University history professor Donald Fixico (Shawnee, Sauk&Fox, Creek, Seminole) and way too many other great Indian people to mention here.
The series has been very thought provoking for me and brought up many old and new questions about American Indian history and our relationship with non-Indians in this country.
Last week’s episode about the Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo was especially thought provoking and reminded me of a question that continues to confound me; “Why the heck are non-Indians so interested in digging us up?”
The Geronimo show brought to mind stories about the Yale University student society Skull and Bones. Rumors have circulated for years that the 175-year-old secret society has the skull of Geronimo on display in their “Tomb,” the name of their building on High Street in New Haven, CT.
Marc Wortman, former editor of the Yale Alumni Magazine recently found a letter in Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library written in 1903 by the “Bonesman” Winter Mead. In the letter, Mead details how he and fellow Bonesman Prescott Bush, former U. S. Senator and father and grandfather of the Bush presidential dynasty, stole the skull from its grave in Ft. Sill, Oklahoma and brought it back to the Tomb. The letter details the theft of the “skull of the worthy Geronimo the terrible” and declares that “the skull is now safe inside the Tomb together with his well-worn femurs, bit and saddle.” (George W. and George H. W. Bush are both reported to be members of Skull and Bones. Membership continues for life.)
Geronimo did indeed die when a prisoner of war at Ft. Sill and is probably buried there. He and 500 Chiricahua Apache were incarcerated at the Fort for 27 years. Apache leaders have reported that in 1986 Bonesman quietly tried to return the skull, but the remains they offered appeared to be the skull of a child according to former San Carlos Apache chairman Ned Anderson. He refused to accept the remains or sign a document verifying that the society was not in possession of Geronimo’s skull. Attorneys for Skull and Bones deny the whole thing.
Currently, a branch of Geronimo’s family filed a lawsuit this year, the 100th anniversary of the warrior’s death, demanding repatriation of his remains back to the headwaters of the Gila River in New Mexico. The Skull and Bones Society is named in the lawsuit brought by Harlan Geronimo, Geronimo’s great grandson. Another group of Geronimo’s descendants has also filed suit-opposing repatriation; they would like the Apache warrior’s remains to stay where they are.
Is Geronimo’s skull in the Tomb? It’s nearly impossible to know for sure, but I think we can assume that the skull of an American Indian person, maybe a child, is kept in the Tomb and is referred to as “Geronimo.”
The thought of Indian remains, those of someone’s relative, languishing in the glass case of a highbrow men’s club as a lighthearted trophy, hurts every time I think about it.
Watching the We Shall Remain’s episode about Geronimo helped me better understand the fascination America has held for the Apache warrior. His exploits were detailed (and probably embellished) in the press of the day, fueling the fire of his legend that continues today. Indeed, it seemed his ferocity and brutality were almost celebrated. However, it doesn’t explain the ongoing interest in this country to unearth and possess his or other American Indian remains.
Where I live, just north of the Mason Dixon line, there is great interest in unearthing and displaying Indian bones. We often see stories in the local paper about folks finding remains on private property and proudly displaying these items in their homes. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which provides protection for Indian funery and cultural items, applies only to federal land.
The mindset that allows seemingly normal, God-fearing, respectful white folks to dig up the graves of Indian people and display their remains continues to confuse and amaze me.
In a strange disconnect, I note that folks in this region seem to revere burial sites containing descendents of their relatives. Vandalism of a cemetery is big news hereabouts.
The Cincinnati Enquirer ran a story not long ago about damage done to the Williamsburg Township Cemetery, a small town in southwestern Ohio. Cemetery sexton Earl Whiteman said,
“I can’t even begin to guess at the cost of all the damage.” “It kind of makes me sick. I don’t know what they’ve gained by doing this. This is sacred ground.”
“They (non-Indians) simply don’t see us as quite human and therefore our dead are unworthy of respect,” maintains Vicky Whitewolf, Cherokee, executive director of the Cincinnati group, Indigenous Cultural Advocacy in Resources and Education. The group advocates for the repatriation of Native American remains.
The notorious Cranial study of 1868, commissioned by the Smithsonian Institute, to prove that Native Americans were physically inferior to white Europeans gives historical credence to this charge and certainly helped form public attitude toward indigenous peoples remains. The museum paid soldiers and civilians for the delivery of skulls of Native American men, women and children. Of the many thousands of indigenous remains shipped to the museum, upwards of 14, 000 remain today at the National Museum of Natural History awaiting repatriation to their respective tribes. (Ironically the science of the day found that Indians were, in fact, physically equal to white Europeans)
Garrick Bailey, professor of anthropology at the University of Tulsa agrees that until very recently, the remains of indigenous peoples have been viewed by mainstream America as scientific specimens rather than the graves of someone’s relatives.
“It’s all about power and privilege,” according to Henrietta Mann, Cheyenne, professor emeritus of Native American Studies at Montana State University. She explains that the same sense of entitlement that led to the depopulation of indigenous peoples from North America in the name of Manifest Destiny (a philosophy of white, European hegemony) allows non-Indians to keep Indian remains as trophies.
I can’t wait to see this week’s We Shall Remain episode; its about the 1973 American Indian Movement’s occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota. That should really get me thinking.