As four scientists formed a human chain to gently lay the bones of 84 Iroquoian women and children in a new burial pit, Joyce Mitchell looked on with a profound sense of justice. For Mitchell, administrator for the Mohawk Nation of Chiefs at the Akwesasne reserve near Cornwall, Ont.—where the reburial was taking place— it was like watching a circle close. The Iroquoian women and children had initially been buried near Roebuck, 75 km southwest, more than 500 years ago, several decades before Europeans came to the area. Archeologists had dug them up before the First World War and carted them off for study, an act that had rankled Mohawks ever since. But on that November day in 1998, as elders and chiefs recited traditional funeral speeches while 100 other natives looked on, archeologists from the Museum of Civilization in Hull, Que., were putting the remains back in the ground. “They took them
As scientists clamour for access, aboriginal people insist their ancestors’ remains should be laid to rest, not studied
out, disturbed their rest,” says Mitchell, 43. “It was only right they put them back where they belong.”
In their uneasy but mutually respectful meeting that day, scientists and natives also buried, at least temporarily, the yawning gulf between their profoundly different world views. Mitchell, like most, is adamant that her ancestors’ remains should neither be displayed—which no reputable museum has done for years—nor even studied, which scientists emphatically want to do. The Roebuck reburial was among the first trickles of what promises to become a torrent of so-called repatriations, the result of a 1990 U.S. federal law requiring the return of human remains upon request, and a similar, voluntary agreement between the Canadian Museum Association and the Assembly of First Nations in 1992.
Repatriation of the estimated 200,000 aboriginal remains still in North American public collections is at the forefront of the evolving relationship between Indians and white society. It raises issues of scientific loss and religious belief, the costs of returns and the repercussions of a sometimes dark history. “I think native people should be able to say, ‘You’ve been insulting and degrading us for hundreds of years, and if we want to rebury our ancestors, we will,’ ” asserts Elaine Dewar, author of the new book
Bones: Discovering the First Americans. “There’s a restitution here that resonates for me.”
But archeologists are alarmed at the drastic possibility of losing bones for future tests. This is particularly frustrating at a time when rapid advances in genetic techniques hold out the tantalizing prospect of grasping New World archeology’s Holy Grail: unravelling the ancient migrations that peopled the Americas. Scholars particularly want access to the handful of very old (9,000 years or more) human remains so far discovered in North America, bones so ancient that anthropologists believe they can have no direct cultural affiliation to present-day First Nations. “I do think there should be some statute of limitations on those,” says Museum of Civilization head archeologist David Morrison, who is his institution’s point man for repatriation—and who took part in the Akwesasne reburial. “After a few thousand years, everybody is the common property of everybody.” Modern archeologists know they are paying for the sins of the past. Before the First World War, according to anthropologist William Noble, desecration of Huron grave sites in Ontario was a “common Sunday afternoon sport for looters.” In 1901, David Boyle, Ontario’s first provincial archeologist, denounced the “wild resurrection mania” that occurred when grave robbers in search of curios fell upon a native burial mound in the Niagara Peninsula. “As many as 70 persons were engaged in digging at one time,” Boyle wrote. “The result was deplorable; all that is left is a few skulls procured in the scramble. ” Boyle’s report was dryly professional. It did not record any moral concerns he might have felt about the dignity due human remains—his overriding complaint was that the plunderers had wrecked a site he wanted to dig up.
In fact, in their pursuit of knowledge, pioneering scientists had on occasion done things that might have shamed grave robbers. One of the crudest was an arrogant trick played on an Inuit boy by some of the most renowned figures in 19th-century anthropology, Franz Boas among them. Seven-year-old Minik, and five other Greenland Inuit were brought to New York City in 1897 by polar explorer Robert Peary and presented to the American Museum of Natural History as “Eskimo specimens.” Minik’s father, Qisuk, and three of the other Inuit succumbed quickly to strains of influenza to which they had no immunity. To placate the grieving boy, the scientists staged a fake funeral at dusk on the museum grounds. As Minik stood by crying they brought out “the corpse”—a log wrapped in
furs—and covered it with a mound of stones. That left them free to pickle Qisuk’s brain and put his bones on display in the museum.
Minik did not find out the truth for a decade. “I threw myself at the bottom of the glass case” in which Qisuk was displayed, he later recalled. “I went straight to the director and implored him to let me bury my father. He would not.” In fact, the museum would not agree to release Qisuk’s bones until 1993, when Kenn Harper’s 1986 biography of Minik, Give Me My Fathers Body, began to attract media coverage. “Every Inuit in Canada has read that book,” says a rueful Morrison. “Some of them probably think we still do things like that. But even by the standards of the time that was a disgusting act by Boas and company.”
Harder for scientists to accept is that even when they have acted ethically, suspicion and mistrust can still result. Haida Repatriation Committee member Andy Wilson, who helped oversee the transfer of 150 skeletons from the Museum of Civilization back to the Queen Charlotte Islands last year, told Macleans that the Haida are continually frustrated in their search for answers. “We keep asking people why did they take the bones, and nobody gives us an answer. We keep saying,
‘You’ve taken our ancestors and you say you’ve studied them; we’d like to see the reports.’ ” But according to Morrison, the Museum of Civilization undertook the disinterments in 1967 and 1968 at the request of the Haida themselves, who believed the site was threatened by a proposed logging road. He adds that the museum did produce a study of Haida burial practices and gave the repatriation committee a copy.
In fact, physical anthropologists have used prehistoric remains to study everything from the origin of diseases to the relationships between human populations. But their pleadings leave natives cold. The anguish Indians feel over the appropriation of their ancestors’ remains is very real, as is, for many, the havoc that can be wreaked on the living by the angry spirits of the disturbed dead. According to native beliefs, disinterred bones are not safe for anyone to handle, which is one reason it was archeologists and not Mohawks in the burial pit at Akwesasne.
Meanwhile, institutions are struggling with the logistical problems and expenses involved in repatriation. Besides the Haida and Roebuck reburials, the Museum of Civilization has made one other large-scale § return. In 1995, it restored to the Six Na! tions Council at Ohsweken, Ont., 57,746 7 bones or fragments taken from a single os! suary, or burial pit. The effort cost more I than $80,000, including hundreds of hours devoted to inventorying and packing the remains in 133 bankers’ boxes. Even after returning 25 per cent of its collection in those three repatriations, the museum still has 62 cabinets full of human bones. “Repatriation is now a part of doing business for public museums, and it needs to be funded as such,” says Morrison. “The money is not available even to study our existing collections as fully as we would like, while we still have them.”
Most archeologists have come to a similar pragmatic conclusion—the collections are going to go back. And in the end, it’s a change many can sympathize with. “This is poetic justice,” Morrison concedes. He also recalls standing in the pit at Akwesasne, arranging the bundled bones of the Roebuck women and children and “feeling particularly for some of the wee ones—in fact, I felt quite honoured to take part.” Mohawk Joyce Mitchell has similarly positive memories. “We have so many more to bring home,” she says. “Washington, Rochester—everywhere you look, this part of North America is filled with our people. The museum was fast in response and very, very good. That’s the way it should be. Let’s make amends for the past.”
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