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.

Over the decades the accumulation of body parts at museums and universities took on the mantle of quantitative research. Along with valuable gold, clay, and stone treasures--often buried with the dead--institutions amassed unearthly collections of bones, skin, and hair. Even as dates of conquest receded into the fuzzy wash of history, the collections remained, scientific spoils of forgotten wars.

It took about 70 years for the dust from the Indian wars to settle. By the 1930s, American Indians posed little threat to the mass of platted white land. Minnesota was no frontier by then, and the few tribal members left were safely stuck on the reservations. At the same time, popular interest in ancient American Indians began to grow.

In 1932, the Minnesota Archaeology Society formed as a group "to promote... sociable good fellowship" amongst its members. They were amateur archaeologists who lent out their collections of artifacts for window displays--at a jewelry store, a tobacco shop. The Minnesota Archaeologist, the state's leading archaeological journal, began its life as their newsletter.

Also in 1932, UM professor Albert E. Jenks excavated "Minnesota Man," a skeleton, in fact of a young girl, which he estimated to be 20,000 years old (though its age has now been determined to be about 8,000 years). The find attracted worldwide attention to Minnesota archaeology. Later that reputation was cemented when Jenks unearthed Browns Valley Man, recently carbon-dated as being nearly 10,000 years old. To this day he remains one of only a handful of skeletons that old in the country.

Jenks is a towering figure in the annals of archaeology, the founder of a scientific dynasty that continues at the university to this day. He began his career with the U.S. Department of the Interior, and came to teach sociology at the UM in 1906. In 1918, when the anthropology department split from the sociology department, Jenks became the new unit's chair. His mission was set out in the department's full title: The "Anthropology and Americanization Training Course." Anthropology, in other words, was to help assimilate immigrants and American Indians.

Not surprisingly, the department taught only a handful of academic courses. Most of its schedule, according to a brief history by a later department chair named Elden Johnson, consisted of "American government, history, economics, or education, with each focused on citizenship and the need to shed the ways of the past. Jenks himself taught a course titled 'American People' and another on the 'American Negro.' The other faculty members were not anthropologists, but social activists who taught part time."

Jenks laid out his theories in a 1921 Science article: "If further immigration is to be allowed or encouraged," he wrote, "the national policy should welcome those groups most favorable to assimilation, and should restrict those unfavorable to assimilation." Pigment was considered a key distinction between the two: In the same treatise, while disparaging "race prejudice on the one hand [and] unthoughtful sentimentality on the other," Jenks called for a moratorium on "alien Negro" immigration, and wondered if black communities here could "maintain men and culture of a fair level with the remainder of the nation, or will they be lowered so that a sort of cultural and physical quarantine would need to be maintained?"

Jenks's theories were no mere academic speculation. He put them to practical use for the timber industry. By the turn of the century, the White Earth Ojibwe reservation in northwestern Minnesota had been parceled out into "allotments" owned by individual members. But when timber companies had clear-cut the rest of the state, they turned to White Earth's forests as a new resource. The government obligingly found a treaty loophole that allowed the selling of land allotted to "half-breeds" (who supposedly were more advanced in the ways of capitalism than their full-blood relatives). The only trick was to thus classify as many White Earth Ojibwe as possible.

That's where Jenks came in. Working as an expert witness for the timber industry along with an archaeologist from the Smithsonian Institution, he testified that he "could indisputably tell full-bloods from mixed-bloods by a cross-section analysis of the hair of an Indian," wrote historian David L. Beaulieu in American Indian Quarterly. Jenks and his Smithsonian partner spent several days driving, as they described it, "from dwelling to dwelling over the reservations to examine the Indians whose blood status was in doubt... Particular attention was directed to the skin of the body, especially that of the chest, to the hair and eyes, physiognomy and a number of other features, such as the nails, gums and teeth."

Jenks published his conclusions in 1916 in Indian-White Amalgamation: An Anthropometric Study. The report included such observations as: "There is no typically Indian form about Indian noses, except that they are coarse--crudely molded rather than finely chiseled," and "the Indian has the slight, delicate hands and feet of people who do little hard manual labor." Based on insights like these, the lumber companies acquired vast tracts of reservation land.

By the time his Science manifesto came out, Jenks seems to have given up hope on American Indians, whose blood he considered too diluted to make a eugenic contribution. "The American plant breeder," he wrote, "has long made use of hardy native plants to make his more prolific hybrids more resistant to cold, drought, disease, and insect pest. Had we been as intelligent in the matter of the Indians as we have been with plants and animals there is little question that they might have added desirable strength to our nation."

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