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.

Jones is not the only American Indian asserting a role in archaeology. Native people have entered the field in growing numbers recently. Several tribes in Minnesota run their own research programs, and the Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe hopes some day to take over management of a historic fur-trading post from the National Park Service.

In the future, Jones may hold the key to a new science of Indian history. For now, when it comes to NAGPRA, he's nothing short of a godsend to local archaeologists. In other states, scientists must deal directly with tribal claims on their collections. But in Minnesota, Jones is their buffer. He protects the academics from the more outspoken activists and soothes those same activists when the wheels of federal law turn slowly, all the while working on his primary charge: to get the bodies back. The archaeologists who once maintained these collections are now mere consultants to him. For them, his presence--and, in a sense, even the repatriation law itself--is a lucky break. It seems to tell the world that the mess left by science's dark history is cleaned up.

In 1993, a box arrived at O'Connell's laboratory. It contained three human skulls and it came from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Some Dakota who called themselves the Red Shield Group kept nagging the clinic. Something about someone named Cut Nose.

O'Connell agreed to work for the clinic. Her task was to determine if any of the three were Mahpiya, a.k.a. Cut Nose, hanged in Mankato, 1862. Working with the standard tools of her trade she began by trying to determine whether the skulls belonged to American Indians. But determining race by osteometric measurement is tricky; the old archaeology of taxonomy and eugenics, of Jenks's "breeds," collapsed under its own lack of evidence. "There's more variation within populations that we tend to think of as races," O'Connell notes, "than there are between them."

The tests on the three Mayo Clinic skulls proved inconclusive. According to O'Connell's measurements, two of the skulls showed "admixture," white/Indian mixed race. The third appeared to be Caucasian.

With a nod from Mayo and the MIAC, O'Connell tried another tack. A student assistant found a photo of Cut Nose at the Minnesota Historical Society. It was scanned into the computer, as were images of the two skulls. Skull number two matched the photograph of Cut Nose--a "good to excellent match."

Meanwhile another of O'Connell's students, working with an expert from the State Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, took the skull and fixed to it markers based on the standard thickness of facial muscles. She then attached bands of clay to the skull until she had built up a facial reconstruction. During her work, she did not see the photograph of Cut Nose. "Her first reconstruction came out a little gaunt," says O'Connell. Later attempts were shown to forensic scientists, and they, too, determined the results to be very good to excellent.

Based on the combined results of the study--the osteological examination, the photo-skull superimposition, and the facial reconstruction--O'Connell determined there was a "high probability" that skull number two was that of Cut Nose. "As typical academics we equivocate," she says. "Thinking of it from a forensic, medical, legal perspective, a positive identification requires much greater evidence. But all together, the pieces of information fit."

As a result of her conclusions, the Mayo Clinic relinquished the three skulls to MIAC. Jim Jones is sorting out the claims of two descendants of Cut Nose. He expects that soon the Dakota warrior will be buried in a traditional ceremony near his home on the Minnesota River. One hundred and thirty-five years after his execution, it's at least a symbolic victory for the Dakota.

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