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Why Graverobbers Won't Leave Native American Burial Sites Alone

March 4, 2019 in History

By Becky Little

Artifacts on display at Don Miller’s farm in 2014. For more than seven decades, Miller unearthed cultural artifacts from North America, South America, Asia, the Caribbean, and in Indo-Pacific regions such as Papua New Guinea.

FBI agents searching an Indiana house in 2014 were shocked to discover a hoard of 2,000 human bones likely stolen from Native American graves. The bureau, which announced the grotesque discovery in March 2019, estimates that the bones represent 500 people. Far from an isolated incident, however, the discovery is only the latest in a long history of Native remains being stolen from their burial sites by collectors and museums.

The theft of Native remains “dates back to colonization of the western hemisphere,” says Shannon Keller O’Loughlin, executive director of the Association on American Indian Affairs and a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of ​Oklahoma. European settlers stole ceremonial burial objects and human remains from Native American graves, and some took body parts like scalps from the Native people they killed.

Many of these human remains stayed in the families that stole them or ended up in museums or other public institutions. The house the FBI raided in Indiana was home to a missionary in his 90s who treated his place like an informal museum. Enslaved Native people who died in Europe also had their remains pillaged abroad. O’Loughlin says Native American remains can be found in institutions in “Germany, France, the U.K., Sweden, Finnland, Spain—our ancestors are everywhere.”

Institutions in the U.S. and Europe were especially interested in acquiring Native human remains during the 19th century in the name of “race science.” This pseudoscience was based on the debunked notion that different races exist on a hierarchy, with white people being superior. One of the most popular versions of this was “phrenology,” the study of skull size to determine intelligence and morality.

“After the Civil War the Surgeon General issued orders to Army medical personnel to collect Native American human remains for study,” writes William Johnson, a Saginaw Chippewa citizen and curator at the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways in Michigan, in an email (Johnson has consulted on the FBI case in Indiana).

“It was believed that cranial capacity would provide insight into Native American personality and intelligence,” he writes. “Native American graves were looted and craniums were collected in the name of science.”

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