Rule of the Bone

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.  

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."

Around the time that such theories became stylish in some European nations, Jenks turned his attention to archaeology. And while his contribution to anthropology tends to be conveniently forgotten, his legacy in the new endeavor endures. He trained Lloyd A. Wilford, who inherited his mantle as the U's top archaeologist. (In a bit of historical irony, Wilford in turn trained Elden Johnson, an early proponent of repatriation, and Johnson trained Christy Caine, one of the architects of Minnesota's reburial law.) More than any other individual, Wilford is responsible for the human-remains collection at the UM. During his career, he led nearly 150 excavations of burial mounds and grave sites.

"Graves were easier to find than villages, and they were full of what looked like information," explains Tom Trow, another university archaeologist who sits on the school's repatriation advisory committee. Jenks and Wilford "genuinely didn't understand that what they were doing was causing so much pain in the Indian community," he says. "They actually did excavate graves and took field notes on what was contained in the graves, and brought all that back--human remains and grave goods--and considered it data. They felt that the right thing to do for scientific purposes was to, in a sense, rescue the materials from further deterioration and disintegration."

The campaign to deliver dead native people into the hands of the living has been around for some time. It's a movement that has always contained to various degrees spiritual and political components. Back in 1974, Apache Jan Hammil Bear Shield directed an organization called American Indians Against Desecration that, along with vocal aboriginal groups in Australia and indigenous groups around the globe, garnered enough sympathy to their cause to prompt the World Archaeological Congress to take up the issue in 1989.

At that event, Bear Shield explained the impetus for the repatriation movement: "That which is called death, to us, is only a change in life as we continue on a journey to the spirit world. Any disruption, delay or halt in that journey is a violation of personal religious beliefs to that individual, [and] to his descendants." In 1990, activists in the U.S. were rewarded with passage of NAGPRA.

Since then, work on repatriating human remains has progressed fairly quietly. If arguments raged, they did so in the sheltered halls of academia. But the headline-grabbing case of "Kennewick Man" might change all that. Found last summer in the state of Washington, these bones, which are some 9,000 years old, bear little resemblance to any modern or prehistoric American Indian tribe. In fact, they appear to belong to a prehistoric Caucasian. Nevertheless, the Army Corps of Engineers seized the bones intending to turn them over to Indians.

With some American Indians claiming their histories don't allow for white ancestors, and scientists tantalized by new archaeological mysteries, it's no wonder Kennewick Man has become the poster-skull of the repatriation controversy. The skeleton is galvanizing opposition to NAGPRA among some archaeologists; there is talk of seeking out other ancient remains and fighting to keep them from being interred. A lawsuit has been filed.

There have been anti-NAGPRA rumblings in the archaeological community in the past, but they've almost never broken the genteel veneer of academia. Even since Kennewick Man, scientists both pro and con are cautious to the point of paranoia when it comes to discussing NAGPRA. In part, their fears reflect the widespread campus preoccupation with avoiding offense, along with the embarrassed discomfort of a field struggling to throw off its historic legacy--the eugenicists like Jenks, the treasure-seekers, the grave robbers. But it goes beyond that. Archaeologists' scholarly interest has always been other peoples' history; they've sought to determine how strangers lived. The broader thrust of NAGPRA is a challenge of their right to do that. Many seem speechless in the face of that challenge.  

"Archaeologists are running scared," says John Whittaker, an osteologist at Grinnell College in Iowa who has written one of the few treatises critical of NAGPRA. "A lot of my colleagues who aren't happy about the situation aren't willing to talk about it and there are an awful lot who are acquiescing too easily. We haven't communicated successfully to the public that the archaeological past is important to everyone. We haven't made our findings open and relevant to enough people."

Even now, most of the critics don't seem prepared to make their case publicly. There is a group of professional and hobby archaeologists opposed to NAGPRA, called the American Committee for the Preservation of Archaeological Collections. Kennewick Man has become their cause célèbre. "If you can imagine it," one of its members told me, "they're allowing Indians to go in there and pray over the bones now, but they won't let scientists even look at them." But she balked at putting me in contact with others on the group's roster, which is kept secret for fear of reprisals.

The Kennewick Man controversy highlights a gray area in the federal law. Simply put, NAGPRA orders museums and universities to identify each skeleton's "cultural affiliation"--in other words, which American Indian tribe it belongs to. The remains must then be matched to any objects excavated with them. The results are published in the Federal Register. Various tribes make claims and possibly counterclaims on the bones. Once that's sorted out and the remains are turned over, it's each tribe's business to rebury them.

For relatively recent remains, determining to which tribe they belong is simple enough. Dakota built mounds, Ojibwe buried distinctive artifacts with their dead. Add that kind of information (much of it culled from archaeologists' field notes) to what is known about the migratory patterns of early tribes, and scientists can make a fairly accurate guess about cultural affiliation.

But anything older than 2,000 years remains an open question. And if it doesn't have a scientifically determined cultural affiliation, anyone can lay claim to a skeleton. In the case of Kennewick Man, the fact that his morphology resembles Caucasians only complicates matters further (a pagan group has recently joined the fray, staking a spiritual claim on the skeleton should it prove to be white).

Under NAGPRA's rules, Kennewick Man is culturally unaffiliated. So is Minnesota's 10,000-year-old Browns Valley Man, who does not have Caucasian features. So are roughly half of the human remains in Minnesota.

Given recent history in Washington state, burying a skeleton as old as Browns Valley Man is sure to generate controversy. Containing as he does the secrets of prehistoric America, Jenks's find could soon find himself at the center of a posthumous legal battle on the scale of Kennewick Man's.

It's Jim Jones's job to make sure that doesn't happen. Jones is the staffer at the MIAC who oversees the NAGPRA program, and he thinks he has discovered a loophole: NAGPRA doesn't force American Indians to bury their dead, he notes. It only forces institutions to give the bodies to tribes. Browns Valley Man already belongs to the MIAC--the pre-NAGPRA Minnesota law gave the MIAC title to all human remains, unaffiliated and affiliated alike. In other words, if the MIAC went ahead and buried its Browns Valley Man, who could launch a claim against them?

Nevertheless, Jones admits he's worried. "There are people opposed to reburial of Browns Valley Man," he says simply. "I expect trouble." When and if the skeleton is buried, along with a projectile point worth thousands on the black market, only Jones and a handful of tribal elders will know where. "If we go to court, we go to court," Jones says. "That's something we'll have to work out then."

All of the human remains affected by the Minnesota law and by NAGPRA have passed through the lab at Hamline University. As she prepares the bones for reburial, O'Connell extracts their final scientific data: She carefully observes each collection for signs of disease or trauma. She records precise measurements with osteometric calipers. The bones are photographed. Other researchers are matching the human remains with lists of artifacts taken from graves, and with the geographic location of each archaeological dig based on field notes taken by Jenks, Wilford, and whomever else has studied the corpses of American Indians. All this information will remain in the hands of scientists.  

But for an osteologist like O'Connell, nothing matches the reality of bone for scientific observation. Pulling a long leg bone from one of the drawers lining her lab, she points out that it is encased in a calcified sheath. It looks as if it had been wrapped with an extra layer of bone; the phenomenon indicates that a fatal infection killed this person. "Bone is a very malleable substance," O'Connell explains. "It's dynamic; it's constantly renewing itself. So evidence of fractures, trauma frequently will show up and many diseases also show up in bone."

Simple details like this can say much about the relative health of a population. Comparing tooth eruption to the length of bones can illuminate growth rates. Tooth decay can reveal secrets of diet. And future developments hold out the promise of even more discoveries. "Techniques always improve," O'Connell says. "Ten, 20 years ago there weren't some of the chemical techniques we have now." Carbon dating, for example, has advanced in precision; scientists can determine the age of bones using just one gram of material. Newer advances include DNA testing and the ability to detect trace amounts of elements that can yield more information about the lifestyles of ancient people.

"I think that this is a very good way to find things out," O'Connell says. "This is a difficult issue." She pauses, searching for some diplomatic way to bridge the gap between the scientific method and the amalgam of spirituality and outrage behind the repatriation movement. "But these remains are the responsibility of the Indian Affairs Council," she says at last. "It is their decision and the decision of many tribes to repatriate."

There are scientists who argue that NAGPRA is simply the logical extension of the direction science has been taking since the 1960s and '70s. It was then--around the same time American Indians were mustering the political might to have their claims heard--that the field of archaeology underwent a massive shift away from the interests embodied in the work of Jenks. Researchers abandoned the notion of "ranking [races], always from the perspective of the ranker, who usually came out on top," O'Connell notes, and turned toward "understanding what bones, human remains, archaeological artifacts can tell us about the diversity of human experience in the past."

NAGPRA carries this "New Archaeology" even further. It forces archaeologists to face their subjects, or at least their descendants. At the UM, Tom Trow insists, there is no room for anything less. "Anybody who is still not getting this and really doesn't understand what's wrong about looting graves may be in the wrong profession," he says. "They can be good at crunching numbers and processing data and analyzing dirt, but they can't be good at the important, cultural part of archaeology which is understanding people's lives."

"I have faith," he adds, "that we have enough ingenuity to develop enough other kinds of tools to learn important things about the past without having to excavate graves."

But it isn't so simple for O'Connell. In her highly specialized world, it's simply unrealistic to toss out years of work and training to start over with new methods. As long as there are human osteologists--and O'Connell is training a new crop at Hamline--there will be a demand for human remains. So scientists are turning to new objects of study. O'Connell and her colleagues recently excavated a Finnish-American graveyard in northern Minnesota. One of her assistants has begun working with the bones of ancient primates. And Hamline has added a program in forensics, which will apply some of the same techniques of study to criminology.

And of course there is the task of NAGPRA compliance itself. The work O'Connell is doing for the MIAC is in many cases the first research to be conducted on the bones since they came out of the earth. Even after the current collections have been reburied, O'Connell expects to continue examining human remains for repatriation--ones unearthed not by archaeologists, but by casual bulldozing for progress. "Human remains will continue to come into this lab," she says, "as long as there are earth-moving projects. We just have to change our idea of how long they stay here."

At its heart, NAGPRA represents a shift in the balance of power between American Indians and scientists, between the scholars and the studied. The visible change may take place in the basement vaults of museums and universities across the country. But the more profound change is at the invisible juncture where science and politics meet. NAGPRA raises uncomfortable questions: Who could trust the results of science carried out on looted corpses? Who would believe the stories of an anthropologist with a pickled penis on his desk?  

These questions have their parallel in the recurring controversy over scientific studies performed by Nazi doctors on concentration-camp victims. The local version played out in the 1980s, when researchers at the UM wanted to look at hypothermia research conducted at Dachau and other camps. "It was repellent," says Stephen Gudeman, chairman of the university's department of anthropology, "and maybe by not using that data we're making a statement that that information is not legitimate. And if we do use it, what kind of statement are we making? I think of that example, the Nazi research, in terms of the Native American debate. Maybe we just have to say, 'No. I don't care. I'm just not going to use that. The nature of scientific knowledge isn't worth it.'

"Science is always politicized," he continues. "Whose knowledge is it? You don't want to get to the point where it's any old knowledge. It's got to be based on some solid techniques. But there has to be a real understanding of the political context. That's a new dimension, and I think it's going to yield a different kind of anthropology."

What form such a "New New Archaeology" might take is not clear. But Jim Jones--the MIAC staffer responsible for the repatriation of all Native remains in Minnesota--provides a clue. When native activists' demand for their ancestors' remains first began to gain momentum, Jones (now 32) was still playing in the mud at his mom's house in Minneapolis, and his dad's on the Cass Lake reservation. Today, he is the man responsible for seeing to it that all of the human remains in collections around the state are returned to the earth.

Like many American Indians, Jones grew up regarding archaeologists with suspicion. "The misconception is that an archaeologist is someone that digs up dead people," he says. "That comes from years of people from the university working--sometimes right in the community--digging up human remains." He remembers watching with wry amusement as a team of archaeologists painstakingly sifted through a dig near his home, trying to discover the meaning of the artifacts they retrieved. Jones knew through his uncles, who heard it from his grandfather, that the researchers were looking at a traditional wild-ricing camp. "Sometimes you can learn a lot just by talking to people," he says.

Yet like most archaeologists, Jones is fascinated by the tangible mystery of the field. As a young man he worked in the Department of Natural Resources' machine shop, pulling engines and cranking on heavy equipment. When one of his pals asked if he wanted to join a DNR dig, he jumped at the chance. "I remember that first year I was bringing every pebble to them--'Is this something?'" Now he is chipping away at an archaeology degree at Bemidji State University while he sifts through the technical details of NAGPRA on the job.

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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