Bare-Bones Imbroglio: Repatriating Indian Remains and Sacred Artifacts

by Dean Peerman

Dean Peerman is a senior editor at the Christian Century.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 17, 1990 pp. 935-937, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


On a recent trip to the Southwest, Dean Peerman encountered a variety of viewpoints among anthropologists, museum curators, antique dealers and Indian tribespeople toward proposed federal legislation called the Native American Grave and Repatriation Act.

Santa Fe

When I was a child growing up in a small town in southern Illinois, my parents once took me to the central part of the state to see the capitol building and Abraham Lincoln’s home in Springfield. On that same trip my father decided that we should drive some 60 miles further to the northwest to visit Dickson Mounds Museum near Lewistown. The primary attraction was a burial ground unearthed by chiropractor Don F. Dickson in the 1920s and containing the remains of over 200 Native Americans: I had never seen real skeletons before; I knew that the museum experience was supposed to be educational, but it all seemed kind of creepy to me. And even at that tender age it didn’t seem quite right for people’s bones to be on public display. (My mother, being part Cherokee, was somewhat discomfited, too.)

Recently Illinois Governor James Thompson; overruling the objections of American Indian groups who consider the Dickson Mounds exhibit to be demeaning and want it closed, decreed that the burial site will remain open. The human remains there, Thompson points out, are 900 years old and cannot be traced to any living tribe; furthermore, he says, this state-operated museum has never degenerated into "a sideshow or carnival for profit." The Indians counter that they respect ancestral remains of whatever tribe or however old, and they cite the belief of many tribespeople that. when hallowed graves are disturbed and their contents exposed, the spirits of the deceased are destined to wander restlessly until the bones are properly reburied. Moreover, since the governor’s action constitutes a reversal -- he had previously signed an order for the site’s closure -- he is, in the Indians’ view, caving in to tourism interests. The Indians intend to picket, file complaints and otherwise protest until the skeletons, along with funerary and sacred objects, are removed. Anglos, they say, can learn about Indians without bothering the bones of venerated Indian forebears.

But whatever the final outcome regarding the bones of contention in Illinois, Governor Thompson seems to be bucking a trend. Here in Santa Fe, in the heart of the tricultural Southwest (Indian, Hispanic and Anglo) , an attitude such as Thompson’s appears outmoded and highly insensitive to Native Americans, their heritage and their religious beliefs. Repatriation and reburial of Indian remains is already under way in various parts of the country; for example, Stanford University in California and the universities of Minnesota, South Dakota and Nebraska have returned or agreed to return their skeletal collections. In some instances the divestment has taken place voluntarily; in others, as in the case of Nebraska, it has required an act of the state legislature.

Long operated as a tourist attraction, Pawnee burial pits near Salina, Kansas, were covered over a few months ago -- thanks largely to the efforts of attorney Walter Echo-Hawk, himself a Pawnee and a leading lobbyist for the repatriation movement. Echo-Hawk is fond of remarking that if you desecrate a white grave, you go to jail -- but if you desecrate an Indian grave, "you get a Ph.D." Though he does not expect everyone to share the Indians’ religious beliefs, he feels that it should not be difficult to understand their belief that their dead deserve to rest in peace. The remains of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans lie in museum drawers or exposed sites; the Smithsonian Institution alone has approximately 19,000 skeletons or skeletal "specimens." (Not all of the Smithsonian’s skeletons are complete. For instance, it has only the skulls of the Cheyennes and Arapahos killed by the U.S. Army in the 1878 Sand Creek Massacre: the surgeon general of the time wanted just their heads shipped to Washington for study.)

The principal opponents of the return of Indian bones seem to be anthropologists, particularly forensic or "physical" anthropologists. Both the Society for American Archaeology and the American Anthropological Association have taken stands against the pro-repatriation legislation now pending in Washington, maintaining that it would undermine scholarship. Newly devised technical tools, they say, make it possible to learn more from old bones than ever before, especially in regard to the nature and history of certain diseases. Responding to that argument, Carl Bryant Rogers, a Santa Fe-based attorney for the Indians, said to me: "Why single out the Indians? Why not dig up everybody’s ancestors?"

In some cases, Rogers went on to say, it may be possible, with Indians’ permission, to analyze skeletal remains before returning them. But in his opinion any marginal loss to science as a result of. bone reburial is outweighed by the human and religious rights at stake. Not even all anthropologists are united on repatriation, however. At odds with the SAA and AAA statements on the issue, Deward E. Walker, Jr., of the University of Colorado at Boulder contends that those organizations’ negative posture is jeopardizing harmonious relationships between field anthropologists and Indian tribes throughout the country. According to Walker, "Science and education have never been dependent upon retaining stolen property or dead bodies against the wishes of next of kin."

But that pending legislation -- the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act -- is making a number of museum curators nervous, including some who consider themselves sympathetic toward Indian interests. They are concerned less about the bones than about the objects often found with the bones -- objects, such as amulets, figurines, prayer sticks and pottery pieces, which they value chiefly for their artistic merit and their historical significance. In both its Senate and House versions, the proposed bill would greatly restrict museum field work on federal lands, and it would require any institution receiving federal funds to return not only human remains but also such "cultural patrimony" as funerary objects, objects of "inalienable communal property" and sacred objects. The most common complaint I heard from museum officials was that the bill’s terminology is too broad and too vague, with some key terms ill-defined. Indeed, the bill is so poorly worded, some of them said, that it could be interpreted as abolishing basic property rights where museums are concerned and mandating the deaccession of such substantial portions of’ their collections that they would be forced to abdicate their fiduciary responsibility -- and thus be in violation of other laws.

"Museums are already in conversation with Indian tribes on repatriation matters," said Michael I. Hering, director of the Indian Arts Research Center (a division of the School of American Research in Santa Fe) ; "the federal government doesn’t need to be involved in this issue." Virtually all of the curators voiced resentment over the fact that, as they see it, the government is trying to dictate a sweeping, generalized policy in a situation that calls for a case-by-case approach -- one that respects the diversity of the various tribes as well as the responsibilities of individual museums. Museum staffs are also aghast at the detailed inventories -- with a five-year deadline -- that the legislation stipulates. Unfortunately, as Thomas A. Livesay, director of the Museum of New Mexico (an overall term for all of the state-run museums and monuments) , admitted, it’s all too easy for condescending senators to say, "You mean you don’t even know already what you’ve got in your museum?" Many museums house artifacts numbering in the millions -- and the truth is their staffs don’t know what all they have. Having to identify for purposes of possible repatriation, the "cultural affiliation" of all those artifacts would indeed be an extensive -- and expensive -- undertaking. While that task might not be quite as costly as some curators make it out to be as of now the bill has no definite provision for appropriations to ease the burden; understandably, museum people are worried about their funding.

Santa Fe’s Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, a private institution, was formerly named the Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art. Founded in 1937 by Mary Cabot Wheelwright of Boston, the museum was intended to preserve and document Navajo ritual and its attendant artifacts. But about 15 years ago the museum changed its focus to include the arts of numerous Indian groups, and it now offers rotating exhibits of jewelry, pottery, tapestry, baskets and paintings.

No longer on view, however, are the sacred ceremonial objects which originally were the Wheelwright’s raison d’être. For this museum has been in the vanguard of repatriation. Said Susan McGreevy, a member of its board and its former director: "We invite Indian elders to identify religious materials and ask them what should be done with those materials. Very often they tell us just to keep them." But her own "unequivocal" opinion, she said, is that "ceremonial objects do not belong in a museum -- adding that objects made for a functional use "should be allowed to self-destruct in the normal order of things."

Not all museum people are as emphatic as McGreevy, and even those who tend to share her views are quick to point out that determining whether a given item is sacred or secular can be very difficult. Sometimes the Indians themselves will not know an antique item’s original purpose, or will differ among themselves as to whether an object that was once sacred is still sacred. Another problem: for Indians who hold to traditional ways; the secular does not exist; all of life and everything in it, including material goods, is sacred. The bill before Congress does not define or delimit "sacred object" with any precision; it is the kind of loophole that leads Helmuth Naumer, head of New Mexico’s Cultural Affairs Department, to say that "if this law goes through in its current state, almost any Indian could claim almost anything." Those loopholes may not be quite as large as Naumer suggests, however The bill -- which focuses on tribes and not individuals or "almost any Indian" -- requires that a tribe establish that an object or objects in question originated with it and come under one of the three categories -- sacred object, funerary object, human remains. (An individual can make a claim only for human remains, and must be able to prove a familial relationship.)

Perhaps even more troubled about the bill than the anthropologists and curators are the gallery owners and antique dealers; though not directly affected, they fear that the bill, if passed, would set a precedent for future legislation that would affect private collections -- and could eventually put them out of business. One such merchant is Jordan Davis, whose Morning Star Gallery is a veritable museum itself (with some exquisite pottery items priced in the high five figures) Commented Davis to the Santa Fe New Mexican: "We all want objects that are culturally utilized and are truly sacred to remain in [Indian] hands, but this would open the gates. There are no safeguards here."

Leading the dealers’ fight against the bill is James Reid, vice-president of the Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association. One argument Reid advances is that the bill favors the religious beliefs of Native Americans over the interests of public collections and therefore runs contrary to the First Amendment’s no-establishment-of-religion clause. Attorney Rogers calls that argument "farfetched": "American common law and statutes that protect the sanctity of the dead and the sensibilities of the living apply with equal force, irrespective of the religion of the deceased or of the next of kin." Moreover, "the same is true under American personal property law that requires stolen property to. be returned to rightful owners -- the religion of the owner is irrelevant."

More persuasive is Reid’s point that the pending bill places an onerous burden of proof of ownership on museums; at this late date, in many cases involving their collections of Indian objects the details of the original act of acquisition do not exist. Also, the bill says nothing about what the Indians should do with repatriated materials, and a few dealers have voiced concern that some artifacts will fall into the hands of unscrupulous Indians and be smuggled abroad. But why abroad? Actually, those objects are much more likely to end up with -- and be peddled by -- the less reputable dealers right here in the US. The black market in Indian art and artifacts -- which knows no racial bounds -- is a thriving, multimillion-dollar enterprise.

Nor are the Indians all of one mind in regard either to the repatriation movement in general or the proposed legislation in particular. Ramona Sakiestewa, a Hopi spokeswoman and the first Indian I interviewed, said that not only is there no "generic" Indian point of view, but that "some Indian viewpoints are contradictory." She proved to be quite correct.

As a matter of ethnic identity and pride, most Indians support the ongoing effort to recover and reconstitute their cultural heritage. But they often differ on the details. Christianized Indians -- and Mormonized Indians, of whom there are many -- do not want returned to them items that they now regard as pagan. For a different reason, the Zuñis do not want back their forebears’ bones; they consider them to have become "tainted" while in Anglo hands. But they have wanted back -- and quietly and patiently campaigned until they succeeded in getting back -- wood-sculpture war gods stolen from them long ago. These sacred carvings are now exposed to the elements and will be allowed, according to their intended purpose, to decay into dust. Granting the loss to art and history,

Edmund J. Ladd, a Museum of New Mexico curator of ethnology and himself a Zuñi, noted that this instance of repatriation "makes sense if you consider [the war gods] religious objects that do their work by disintegrating." (Interestingly, some museums sought to use the "fiduciary responsibility" argument in an attempt to hang on to the Zuñi war gods, even though they clearly were purloined property -- not a very responsible use of the responsibility rationale, it would seem.)

As for the pending bill, activist Indian groups favor it -- groups such as the Native American Indian Artists Association, the All-Indian Pueblo Council and the National Congress of American Indians. Tribal governments generally support it too. Indians who are also curators are caught in the middle, though they tend to oppose the legislation. Ladd worries that were it to become law, it would pit tribes against museums and result in endless litigation. Dave Warren, a Santa Clara Indian whose home is in Santa Fe but who currently works for the Smithsonian, in the course of a long conversation refused to be pinned down, saying that the legislative situation is still too much in a state of flux for him to indicate which way he is leaning.

In view of the fact that for many years museums carried on a lonely struggle to preserve Indian culture -- at a time when the U.S. government was actively suppressing that culture and pushing for total assimilation -- it is ironic that the pending proposal, at least in its present form, has the potential for placing tribes and museums in conflict. (It is also ironic that the repatriation measure was first introduced by a since-defeated senator -- John Melcher, a conservative Montana Democrat -- who was out of favor with his Indian constituents and thought that such a measure might be a relatively cost-free way of placating them.) But whether or not the federal government should be involved in the repatriation issue, it is going to be -- that is the political reality -- and very likely some version of the pending bill will soon be passed. In its favor is the fact that not all museums would surrender Indian artifacts voluntarily. Even the Smithsonian has been dragging its heels; according to Echo-Hawk, so far none of its thousands of Native American skeletons have been returned despite a number of requests -- and it may have to be taken to court.

If the museum curators and antique dealers tend to exaggerate their complaints, some of those complaints are legitimate nonetheless. The bill before Congress could stand a fair amount of fine-tuning, definition-tightening and clarification. The issue is as complex as it is controversial, and further negotiations are called for among some very cool and very astute heads on all sides. (Final hearings should be coming up in Washington shortly.)

But surely it all comes down to the question of whether the first Americans are finally to enjoy the same rights enjoyed by later Americans. In all cases in which their claims are valid, the Indians should have restored to them the objects which they consider sacred and which are central to their ceremonies and rituals. (One possible compromise, in circumstances in which it is acceptable to the Indians: an arrangement whereby certain artifacts are circulated between tribe and museum. This solution has already proved feasible in some instances.)

And yes, there should be an end to the grave robbing. So often stripped of their dignity in life, Native Americans should be accorded the dignity of proper burial and peaceful repose in death.