Rule of the Bone

After a century of hoarding American Indian remains, scientists are being forced to return their specimens. But the bodies may not go back into the ground without a fight.

Unless you have spent some time with bones, you cannot appreciate their infinite variety. Barbara O'Connell has them laid out by the dozens on wooden tables covered with brown paper at her Hamline University lab. A skull on one table is blackened by smoke. Next to it sits another rubbed deep brown by years under earth. A child's delicate rib cage is stained turquoise and green by a bronze or copper talisman buried with it. Another skeleton looks like a velvet bruise, the result of mineral deposits absorbed from the soil.

A trained osteologist, O'Connell points out some of the finer distinctions. Sharp ridges in the eye sockets, a sloped forehead, and the size of muscle attachments at the back of the skull all point to the male sex. "Age is determined, in young individuals, by tooth eruption," she says, turning a skull upside-down to show me the jaw. "Here is a person whose third molar is in the process of erupting. The third molars are what we call wisdom teeth, which come in around the age of 18 or 20." The teeth of older people often show signs of wear and decay.

The bones in the lab--sent there from the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Historical Society, the Science Museum, and a variety of other agencies around the state--are all that is left of some 2,000 American Indians who died some time during the past 10,000 years. They were dug up by scientists and collectors over the course of more than a century, then kept until recently as specimens in archaeological collections. Now, O'Connell and her colleagues and students, under the supervision of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC), are engaged in the last research ever conducted on these bodies--preparing them for burial.

They have little choice. A 1990 federal law called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) recognizes American Indians' claims on the bones of their ancestors and forces museums and universities across the country to pull skeletons out of basements and turn them over to tribes. All federally funded agencies must hand over their collections or lose their funds. In Minnesota, tribes have been burying human remains under state law since 1989, when the UM and other state institutions relinquished title of their collections. The bones are now officially the property of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, a state body that works with tribes and so far has sent more than 800 skeletons off for reburial. If all goes well, council officials hope, the rest of the bones in O'Connell's laboratory will be back underground within a year.

There are scientists and American Indians both who hail NAGPRA as the dawn of a new, respectful science. They hope that along with the bones they are burying the troubled history of archaeology. But the demons raised by NAGPRA--a complex mix of faith, science, politics, and history--are long-lived. The process of reburial may be nearing completion, but the broader implications of NAGPRA are only beginning to become manifest.

On the day after Christmas, 1862, in Mankato, the U.S. Army staged the largest public mass execution in the nation's history. The hanged were political prisoners, captured by troops during the Dakota uprising.

The story of the rebellion and its causes is well known: crop failures and famine, a government policy of forced assimilation, corrupt traders who bilked the Dakota out of their meager earnings. The Redwood and Yellow Medicine reservations erupted in late summer, and in a few days the Dakota wiped out some 500 white settlers. Henry Sibley's military tribunal at first sentenced 300 of the rebels to death. But President Lincoln intervened, sending most of the captured to prison camps at Fort Snelling. The remaining 38 were executed in Mankato and buried in a shallow grave on the edge of town.

What happened next is less commonly known. Though mentioned in the older accounts, including one by C.M. Oehler dated 1959, this final detail is left out of many contemporary histories: "Late that night, a group of doctors from Mankato, St. Peter, and Le Sueur dug the bodies out and took them away explaining that the high water in the spring would open the grave in any event.

"Dr. William Mayo drew the body of Cut Nose [a leader in the uprising]. The skeleton of the terror of Beaver Creek was cleaned and articulated. A few years later, when the doctor's two young sons showed an interest in medicine, their first knowledge of osteology came from the skeleton of Cut Nose."

The founders of Rochester's Mayo Clinic were not the only scientists with a trail of blood leading to the laboratory. The corpse of Little Crow, a Mdewakanton leader in the 1862 rebellion, found its way into the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society, and it was on public display as recently as the 1970s. The remains of American Indians killed in the infamous Sand Creek massacre joined the Smithsonian collection. White soldiers who fell at Little Bighorn, the site of Custer's last stand, were buried in consecrated ground while Cree Indian corpses were collected as specimens. And the U.S. is not alone in its pursuit of native flesh and bone. At the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University, scientists kept an indigenous "specimen" until 1990: a pickled penis brought back from the colonies.

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