November 3, 2003

Haida bones returned by Chicago’s Field Museum

Posted at 9:19 am in Similar cases

The remains of over one hundred of their ancestors have been returned to the Haida First Nations tribe in Canada by Chicago’s Field Museum.

Times Colonist (Canada)

The Homecoming
Haida rejoice as ancestral bones return to rest
Jack Knox
Times Colonist

OLD MASSETT, Queen Charlotte Islands – They carried the 46 boxes of bones out of St. John’s Anglican church and drove them to the cemetery Saturday — past the totem poles towering out of the earth, past the hip and funky Haida Rose Cafe, past the weather-beaten homes with the red Haida Nation flags drooping in the rain.

Not a long drive, certainly not as long as the long haul to Chicago, from where the Haida just retrieved the remains of close to 150 ancestors snatched from their resting places in the name of science a century ago. The bones had spent the last 100 years packed away in the Field Museum of Natural History, where they had been taken after being scooped up by anthropologists.

On Saturday, the remains of those taken from the northern end of the Queen Charlotte Islands — the natives know it as Haida Gwaii — were reburied in Old Massett. Those taken from the southern communities have been placed in 84 cedar bentwood boxes for interment today in the other main Haida village, Skidegate.

‘Many of us feel in our hearts that our ancestors have not been at rest,” Rev. Lily Bell, clad in a traditional red button blanket, told the packed church Saturday.

“Today our mourning is going to turn into rejoicing.”

The congregation, many wearing blankets and woven cedar bark hats, sang How Great Thou Art in English and Haida before the boxes — some the size of large chests, some easily carried by a child — were reburied.

It was a remarkable sight, made even more noteworthy by the fact that such scenes aren’t that uncommon. Natives across North America have reburied thousands of their ancestors in the last few years. In one of those pendulum swings that mark society’s changing sensibilities, the same museums that once competed to collect human remains have tens of thousands more that they are now scrambling to give back.

The repatriation, as they call it, brings almost to an end a dogged, eight-year campaign by the Haida to have their ancestors brought home. Remains — some just bones, others almost-complete skeletons — of close to 500 Haida have been reclaimed from a half-dozen museums around North America. Only a handful of individuals are known still to be held by museums in the U.S. and Britain.

They had been taken at a time when the Haida were thought to be a dying civilization. Smallpox had reduced their population to a few hundred from 10,000. In a series of three expeditions between 1897 and 1903, collectors swooped down on abandoned villages and took away anything they could find.

Some of the skeletons were dug up. Other, older remains, were of Haida who had been placed atop mortuary poles, perhaps 10 metres off the ground, after they died.

“These ones that we’re getting back today were in bentwood boxes, with artifacts, on the mortuary poles,” said Andy Wilson, a carver who oversaw the making of the 84 boxes to be buried in Skidegate today.

Schoolchildren painted the boxes and made the button blankets in which the remains were wrapped. Others among the Haida — there are 2,500 to 3,000 of them on the islands — held raffles, fish dinners and other fundraisers to bring in the $100,000 it cost to bring the bones back from Chicago.

This has been an important endeavour to many people here, an indicator of a resurgence in Haida culture.

“I’m honouring my ancestors and paying respect to the people who made me who I am today,” said 32-year-old Lucille Bell, Haida heritage officer in Old Massett. She has been instrumental in the repatriation among the Haida, who are recognized as being among the leaders in the movement to recover ancestral remains.

This all goes back to the 19th century, when some of America’s most august institutions — New York’s American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian, Harvard’s Peabody Museum — got into bone collecting in a big way. The practice became much more widespread as the 20th century dawned and the field of physical anthropology grew. Universities and museums scooped up dead people from around the world, studying them for skeletal variation. They thought they were doing the right thing, but apparently didn’t think enough of the Indians to seek their approval.

It was mostly an American phenomenon, not because Canadians were appalled by what was going on, but because we couldn’t compete with the heavyweights.

“It’s really only big human-history museums that have human remains,” said David Morrison, director of archeology and history at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Que. In Canada, that meant Morrison’s institution, the Royal Ontario Museum and Victoria’s own Royal B.C. Museum were in the game. Only they could afford the research programs.

Actually, the RBCM never did do much physical anthropology, though it opened its collection to visiting scholars, said Bob Griffin, the museum’s manager of human history.

Still, the Victoria institution has the remains of hundreds of aboriginals wrapped up and boxed away in a locked room on one of the upper floors — and it would like to give them back.

For the past 50 years, museum practice has been to turn over remains when asked by native groups. But in 1997 the RBCM became proactive, contacting bands to let them know it had their ancestors tucked away upstairs, and that they could come get them.

More than a score of groups, including the Haida, have responded, reclaiming 700 individuals. The largest repatriation came in 2001, when more than 400 remains were returned to Nanaimo’s Snuneymuxw First Nation.

Still, another 800 individuals have yet to be claimed.

“They can vary from a bone, even a small knuckle bone, right up to almost-intact remains,” said Griffin. Most came to the museum through archeological excavations, or were brought in by police after someone stumbled across them in the bush. The RBCM isn’t really haunted by the ghoulish spectre of grave-robbing, at least not on a scale like that seen in Haida Gwaii.

Some of the bones haven’t gone back because no one has shown interest in getting them. But many of the remains still at the museum are of uncertain lineage, having been found in areas where native groups have overlapping claims.

“It’s hard to know who to return them to,” said Griffin.

Morrison said the Museum of Civilization is in a similar position and won’t surrender remains that are the subject of competing claims.

“We don’t want to get sued 10 years down the road for giving it to the wrong people.”

The museum has relinquished the bones of hundreds of individuals in the past few years — including, yes, one big group to the Haida — but untold others are still stored away.

“We’ve repatriated maybe an eighth of our total collection.” It’s difficult to determine exactly how many people are involved. “We’re never dealing with the complete remains of an individual,” said Morrison.

Morrison’s museum is in the midst of a big repatriation involving the bones of about 100 St. Lawrence Valley Iroquois. The request comes from the Mohawk, a related group. The St. Lawrence Iroquois, those who met Jacques Cartier at Hochelaga, have been extinct since about 1580.

With the Iroquois, it’s difficult to pin down exact numbers because they used to dig up their dead every 25 years or so and rebury them in ossuaries — common graves where hundreds, thousands of bones would be piled together.

But if Canadians think they have trouble sorting out questions of who’s who and how many, they should look south of the line.

In the U.S., the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, passed in 1990, requires several hundred federally funded institutions to catalogue the aboriginal remains in their collections and let tribes know that they can have them back. (The law does not require museums to return the bones of other countries’ natives; the Field Museum returned the Haida bones because they felt it was the right thing to do.)

So far, U.S. museums have identified the remains of 27,777 natives as being eligible for repatriation.

“That’s a minimum number,” Paula Molloy, said in a telephone interview from the NAGPRA office in Washington, D.C. It’s an ongoing process, and the figure is climbing.

The NAGPRA office also reported in March that the remains of another 61,000 native Americans have been declared culturally unidentifiable. Again, those are just the ones they have catalogued so far.

In addition, the Smithsonian Institution, covered under separate legislation, has a further 18,000 sets of remains in its possession.

There is no equivalent to NAGPRA in Canada, though there is general agreement that remains should be returned to natives, along with funerary objects — the bits they were buried with.

Morrison said although it would be nice to have the grant money that NAGPRA provides to return remains — “It’s a laborious, expensive process” — there are benefits to not being bound by law.

“We get the goodwill that comes from doing it voluntarily.”

Policies vary from museum to museum, but most follow similar lines. The Museum of Civilization will return bones only to a community, not an individual, as none of the remains can be linked so specifically, said Morrison. “We don’t have anybody’s grandmother.

“We will repatriate burial goods along with human remains. We will also return anything that was acquired in any way dubiously. We will also return anything sacred.

“We’re not willing to repatriate things that were bought on the open market, though we’re often asked.”

Nor will the museum give up artifacts excavated under archeological permit.

The Royal B.C. Museum’s policy is to return human remains and burial objects to associated native groups when it is desired.

The policy also declares the RBCM to be committed to “the return of objects that may have been acquired under circumstances that render the museum’s claim invalid” — which is a nice way of saying it will sheepishly give back stuff that was swiped, bought off guys who had no right to sell it, or obtained by trickery.

But that doesn’t apply just to native items, said Griffin. “This would hold for any artifact in the museum.” (You can just see them swooning at London’s British Museum, home of the Elgin Marbles.)

Some disputes are inevitable, with ownership rights bogged down in grey areas.

But there should be no dispute over what to do with the bodies tucked away upstairs. They never should have been brought there in the first place, said Griffin. “Let’s get them home.”

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