Grave injustice

Monday, August 18, 2008

Blest be the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones - William Shakespeare's epitaph

I have been reading lately about the sparring between some scientists and Native American activists about what should be done with ancient human bones dug up in Iowa and the surrounding area.

At one time, Native American burial sites and mounds were dug into with gusto, and you might have encountered the remains of some prehistoric person on a shelf in any run of the mill local museum or the basement of some amateur archaeologist.

Lately, many of those bones are being pulled out of cardboard boxes, forgotten drawers and dusty museum cases to be reburied - if not in the location they originated, at least in locations chosen by current representatives of related Native American tribes.

You may have seen coverage of a 2007 ceremony in which bones of at least four Native Americans that have been in the hands of museums and collectors for decades were buried in the Black Hills.

We have come a long way. The history books tell of one dig in which a burial mound at Okoboji, just south of the Spirit Lake Massacre site, was raped in the early 1900s. Locals held a picnic on the opened mound, and danced a mock Indian dance around it as the digging went on. The first skeleton was that of a child, the photos of a skull stuck on a stick can still be seen. The crowd was reportedly invited to take pieces of bone away as souveniers.

Some scientists bemoan the recent trend to rebury old bones, or limit the time they can be stored for research - "What we are seeing here is the triumph of political correctness over logic and reason," says Geoffrey Clark of Arizona State University's archaeology department.

The cruz of the argument is that we are losing a chance to learn about history, since bones call tell us about diet, diseases, ethnicity and lifestyles of the people who came here up to 13,000 years before us.

Still, I have to wonder how Mr. Clark would like it if we dug up his grandpa and gleefully stowed him in a glass case to be perused for a dollar admission charge.

Personally, human remains being shown off for no real purpose seems disrespectful at best. They are nor artifacts, they are people who lived, loved, suffered and died. Perhaps scientific study is warranted on important finds - knowing who lived where and when helps to tie together the complex historical puzzle that is prehistoric occupation. But I have a hard time understanding the fine line that makes digging up an Indian grave "archaeology" and digging up a caucasian grave a "desecration" crime.

Was anyone else a bit disturbed, too, by the "Bodies the Exhibition" shows that drew so many headlines starting in 2006? The show posed skinned and partially dissected human bodies as an artistic exhibit. News reports at the time claimed that the bodies used were legally-purchased corpses of unclaimed Chinese prisoners. I'm as fascinated as anyone by the inner workings of the human body, but that's just plain creepy.

Checking with the Office of the Iowa State Archaeologist, the reburial of ancient remains is indeed a big deal.

They tell me that the remains of 1,205 individuals have so far been reburied in the four little-known cemeteries set aside in Iowa by law for the purpose.

Some remains have been repatriated to the Iowa and Sac and Fox tribes to be handled according to their traditions.

It is estimated that thousands more skeletons were grave-robbed or uncovered in erosion, construction or digs. I believe that a local student found remains in an eroding riverbank a few years back - and dutifully reported it.

The debate is far from resolved, as some recent news coverage shows.

''If we dug up George Washington, you'd be appalled,'' said Suzan Shown Harjo, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. ''Yet if they dug up my grandfather, nobody would be appalled. It's an affirmation that these people believe we are culturally and genetically inferior.''

Referring to excavations at the Custer Battlefield National Park in Wyoming, she said, ''We see that the 7th Cavalry members were reburied with great care and sensitivity, and that their bones didn't have to be kept around for 200 years just because new technology might come around'' to aid in bone studies.

She cited another case in Iowa in which the bones of Indians whose names were known were placed on museum display for study, while the bones of whites found at the same site were reburied.

A fundamental belief among many tribes is that there are living and spirit worlds, and if the human remains are disturbed, the spirit becomes trapped in the living world, where it can do evil. Disturbing or preserving the remains is considered sacrilege.

''What good are bones sitting on a shelf drawing dust?'' asks Maria Pearson, a Yankton Sioux who led an effort in Iowa to rebury all Indian bones kept in museums in the state. She suggested the money used to study old bones be used instead to research modern health and social problems impacting Native Americans in Iowa.

This is not a new discussion - the first Iowa burial protection laws, and the first reburials, date to 1976 in Iowa. It is still an active one, though, as I recall some protests over the expansion of the Mall of America area developments that would apparently encroach on historic Native American burial mounds near Bloomington, Minn.

I don't know about you, but I am enclined to leave the dead where they were put. It seems like the most basic form of human respect - not to mention a whole shovelful of bad juju to mess with some ancient medicine man's final resting crib.

Once they stick me in the ground, throw me in the dumpster out back or whatever they decide to do, unless they plan to relocate me next to the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers cheerleaders' burial grounds, I think I'll just stay put, thank you.