Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights 2020

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Smithsonian's racist collection of Indian skulls

The history of the Smithsonian Institution, like the history taught in US classrooms, is largely one of deception and fiction
By Brenda Norrell
Censored News
Photo: Trees at Sand Creek massacre. Photo Brenda Norrell.

The Smithsonian's dark history includes the collecting of American Indian brains for a racist experiment which claimed to reveal the relationship between race and intelligence. Brains were collected for bounty. One of the massacres where this sinister collection of brains was carried out was at Sand Creek in Colorado, a brutal massacre where fleeing Cheyenne and Arapaho women and children were murdered in 1864. The following article is republished, so the facts will not be forgotten, with a special thank you to Pawnee professor James Riding In who provided much of the information. After publication of this article, I wrote the Smithsonian and asked if it was true that more than 10,000 Indian skulls remained at the Smithsonian. There was no response. --Brenda Norrell
Smithsonian harbored Ishi's brain
by Brenda Norrell
(March 19, 1999)

The Smithsonian Institution admits, after a probe and nearly a century
of secrecy, that it housed the brain of Ishi, a Yahi Indian who
walked into Oroville, Calif., in 1911.

But the admission comes only after American Indians demanded a
beffiting burial and University of California researchers probed the
whereabouts of Ishi's remains, that the Smithsonian admits that Ishi's
brain was in a warehouse at the National Museum of Natural History.

Pointing to scientific racism, James Riding In, Pawnee professor at
Arizona State University, said American Indian skulls at the
Smithsonian are part of the U.S. Army's research intended to show that
whites were superior based on the size of their skulls.

Riding In said the Smithsonian has been less than forthcoming about
the American Indian remains in its possession, as mandated by the
Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Riding In said Smithsonian Institution curators previously acquired
18,500 bodies and most of the skulls were collected by the Army
Medical Museum in the 1800s. While most of the crania gather dust at
the Smithsonian today, others have been destroyed by carbon 14 dating

Riding In's research is now included in law seminar course material at
Arizona State University, "Symposium
on Land, Culture, and Community: Contemporary Issues in Cultural
Resources Protection."

The research shows that Samuel G. Morton, in the early 1830s, worked
in craniology and phrenology, to devise tests on skulls, in relation
to intelligence and crania size. He poured mustard seeds into human
skulls to determine size and volume in his research.

In the process, Morton assembled a large collection of American Indian

"He never questioned the morality of stealing Indian crania from
graves," Riding In said.

Morton paid soldiers, settlers, and others for Indian skulls. With
bounty offered, American Indian skulls became sought after in what
Riding In describes as a cottage industry.

The United States Army established a program during the 1860s for
studying Indian crania. Among those massacred, beheaded and their
crania taken, were a group of friendly Cheyenne, Kiowa and Arapaho
near Sand Creek, Colo.

The final chapter in the legacy of Ishi, whose biography became a
documentary film, is included in this dark, untold chapter of American

Although Ishi made a final request that there be no autoposy, the
anthropologists who supposedly befriended him, removed his brain
during an autoposy in 1916. The removal and transfer to the
Smithsonian were kept secret until recently.

"It was not uncommon to study brains in the early 20th century," said
anthropologist Orin Starn, who led the Smithsonian to admit the
location of Ishi's brain. "Some people thought that different races
had different brain sizes."

Starn said Ishi was "really was a victim of a holocaust."

The investigation was spearheaded by Nancy Rockafellar, a research
historian at the University of California in San Francisco in the
History of Health Science Department, and Starn, a Duke University

Rockafellar said that before his death in 1916 from tuberculosis, two
persons appeared to befriend Ishi, anthropologist Thomas Waterman and
museum curator Alfred Kroeber. Rockafellar determined that after the
autoposy, Kroeber sent Ishi's brain to the Smithsonian for study in

Native Americans in California plan to carry out a proper burial at
Ishi's homeland at Mount Lassen.
(A proper burial of Ishi did follow.)
Additional reference to the US collection of American Indian skulls: "In 1862, during the Civil War, the Surgeon General established the United States Army Medical Museum (AMM; now the National Museum of Health and Medicine of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology)."
Photographs of American Indian skulls at this museum: "Tribes or races represented are Apache, Arapaho, Arikara, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Comanche, Dakota, Eskimo, Hawaiian, Negro, Paiute, Ponca, San Miguel and San Nicholas islands (California), White, and Wichita." Read more:

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