Burial Grounds, Native American

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Burial Grounds, Native American


In nearly every cultureand certainly in every religionthere is some promise of life after death. It is often necessary, therefore, to connect ones mortal remains with after-existence, whether by freeing the soul from its worldly dwelling or preparing those remains for their later state. The meaning attributed to such preparations and the forms they take mirror much of the society they serve and often carry, through the intensity of their attendant emotions, the ideas upon which a culture depends when death threatens the very order of things.

The disposition of the dead by American Indians is as varied as the organization of the groups themselves. For many ancient peoples (c. 1000200 BCE), as seen particularly in the eastern United States, elaborate burial mounds probably replicated the social order of settlements or the vision of the cosmos at large; for others, like the Choctaw, Plains Indians, or Northwest Coast tribes, the spirits of the dead could only be released by first exposing them to the elements, the scattered remains sometimes being subject to secondary interment; for still others, as among those groups of the Southeast, the dead were often placed in large earthenware jars before burial. As many Indians and Aleuts were converted to Christianity by Hispanics, Europeans, or Russians, burial in cemeteries, with appropriate religious insignia, became far more common. To the extent that one can generalize, for Native Americans, locale and cosmos came together in the rituals of daily life, including, with special force, the treatment of the place with which the remains of ones predecessors were associated.

Just as white Americans will go to extravagant lengths to recover the bodies of their dead or visit their final resting place, so, too, for Native Americans, deprivation of their dead has been felt with special intensity. The forced removal of Indians from the East, the creation of reservations, and the loss of Indian lands exacerbated the sense of separation from ancestors. Throughout the Indian wars of the nineteenth century, the remains of fallen Indians were collected by the U.S. Army, the bodies stripped of their flesh, and the bones sent back to Washington, D.C. Housed for decades in government and private institutions, thousands of skulls and bones were hidden away or subjected to every passing scientific notionfrom the relation of cranial size to intelligence, to the development of civilization as determined by denture, diet, or DNA. Often, too, the remains were placed on view in public or private museums, commonly with unflattering labels or surroundings. To Indians, these collections and exhibits, whether for science or for profit, were nothing short of the desecration to which, they argued, non-Indian remains were never subjected.

Many of these issues came to a head in the 1970s and 1980s, when Indian legal groups filed lawsuits seeking the discontinuance of offensive displays and the return of Indian remains. There was, however, no clear legal right to the return of such remainswhether the 18,500 sets of remains in the Smithsonian Institution or the hundreds of skeletons plundered in the late 1980s from a site in Kentucky. In 1990, therefore, the U.S. Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which explicitly classifies human remains as cultural items that could be returned to related successor tribes. As museum and university inventories were constructed and tribes asserted the right of return, archaeologists and native groups sometimes came into conflict: Most native peoples object to any scientific studies of their ancestors remains, while scholars often asserted the benefits of allowing their studies to go forward. A number of states (e.g., California) also passed statutes or entered into agreements with tribes allowing the return of burial remains even from private sites. Further federal protection criminalizing the illegal excavation or trafficking in human remains is afforded by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1978. Tribes themselves have also adopted codes affecting archaeological work on their reservations, and have even sought to make their laws extend to remains housed off Indian lands. Several international human rights conventions have proved an effective basis for the return of remains to peoples of the South Pacific, but since the United States is not a signatory to some of these treaties, international standards have yet to be applied to Native Americans.

Perhaps most difficult has been the question of ancient remains. When a set of 8,000-to 9,000-year-old-bones, known as Kennewick Man, was discovered in Washington State, the Army Corps of Engineers sought to transfer the bones to the five tribes who claimed a connection to them. In 2004 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (in Bonnichsen v. United States ) held that the requirement that there be some relation of the remains to an existing tribe, people, or culture had not been met in this case, and the court permitted scientists to gain access to the materials. Other cases may also test the meaning of indigenous and the criteria for showing cultural affiliation, terms that are not clearly defined in the statutes themselves. Nevertheless, where historical connections can be asserted, the capacity of tribes to regain control over their peoples burial remains has significantly increased since the 1980s.

Americans have long had a deep-seated ambivalence toward their native peoples. From the restraints that Chief Justice John Marshall (1755-1835) sought to place on the federal governments care of its domestic dependent nations to the willingness of white Americans who would never adopt a black child to extend their kinship boundaries to include Indians, the course of American history has never been a simple story of conquest and oppression. The question of science versus heritage, identity versus property, replicates much of white-Indian relations and the ambivalence with which each approaches the actions and intentions of the other. The idea that Indians are like the miners canarythat they give an early indication of the quality of the environs in which everyone operatesis no less true where archaeological remains are concerned than where land, natural resources, or the constitutional limits of indigenous sovereignty are also at issue.

SEE ALSO Burial Grounds; Indigenous Rights


Bushnell, David Ives, Jr. 1920. Native Cemeteries and Forms of Burial East of the Mississippi. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Mihesuah, Devon, ed. 2000. Repatriation Reader: Who Owns American Indian Remains? Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Mitchell, Douglas R., and Judy L. Brunson-Hadley, eds. 2001. Ancient Burial Practices in the American Southwest: Archaeology, Physical Anthropology, and Native American Perspectives. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Thomas, David Hurst. 2000. Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity. New York: Basic Books.

Lawrence Rosen

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