Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

January 12, 2023

Smithsonian Without Ethics or Morality

Lakota Village, 1891, Wounded Knee, South Dakota

Smithsonian Without Ethics or Morality

By Brenda Norrell
Censored News
May 8, 2010

Since the creation of the National Museum of the American Indian, there has been an increased effort to conceal the true history of the Smithsonian Institution, especially in regard to harboring human remains and the racist cranium studies of American Indians.

The National Museum of the American Indian is the sixteenth museum of the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian did not respond to my last request for information, regarding the number of American Indian remains, and American Indian skulls, that currently remain at the Smithsonian.

One of the most censored issues is the racist cranium studies carried about by the Smithsonian, in an unsuccessful attempt to prove white superiority based on the size of skulls. The studies included the grave robbing of American Indians.

Here is one of the first articles I wrote in 2004 on the subject. Professor James Riding In, Pawnee, at Arizona State University, provided the information. Hopefully, Native Americans will write books on this subject and US school curriculums will one day change to reflect the truth of US institutions.

Without ethics or morality, American Indians were robbed of the equal right of burial 

Pawnee professor exposes scientific racism

By Brenda Norrell (Written in 2004)

In the dark cavities of American history -- between the pages of the creation of the Constitution and the proclamation of America as a champion of human rights -- there is a haunting chapter missing. James Riding In, Pawnee historian and professor, can prove it.

The U.S. Army paid a bounty for the crania of American Indians for research designed to prove a white supremacist theory, that whites were superior to other races based on their skull size.

Moreover, the vast majority of those crania are now housed in the Smithsonian Institute, which has been less than forthcoming under a new federal law -- the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act -- mandating it to notify tribes of the identity of human remains.

The recent admission that the skull of Ishi, the last of his people, was housed in a Smithsonian warehouse is the latest proof of silence and complicity in a crime against Native people.

Riding In said the Smithsonian Institution curators acquired 18,500 bodies and most of the skulls were collected by the Army Medical Museum in the 1800s.

In most instances, the crania gather dust at the Smithsonian today. But others have been destroyed by carbon 14 dating analysis. While white society severely punishes those that rob and loot graves of white people, American Indians have been denied equal protection under the law.

Riding In joined tribal leaders, scholars and attorneys at Arizona State University’s Indian Legal Program Feb. 25-26, for the "Symposium on Land, Culture, and Community: Contemporary Issues in Cultural Resources Protection."

Riding In’s research reveals a missing chapter in U.S. history books.

Samuel G. Morton, in the early 1830s, worked under the new disciplines of craniology and phrenology, to devise tests on skulls, in relation to intelligence and crania size. Morton poured mustard seeds into human skulls to determine size and volume in his research. In the process, he assembled a large collection of American Indian skulls.

"He never questioned the morality of stealing Indian crania from graves," Riding In says in an essay now included in the university’s law course materials. Morton paid soldiers, settlers, and others for Indian skulls. Economic rewards provided incentives to grave looting.

Field collectors took advantage of the recurring diseases and political forces that depopulated and displaced Indian people, he said.

"Because of the demand created by Morton and others, gathering Indian skulls in frontier areas grew into a cottage industry," Riding In said.

In the meantime, it became obvious that American Indians would rather submit to extermination than "wear the yoke" of slavery.

Riding In said this attitude, combined with the belief that American Indians were savages, shaped public opinion and the development of federal Indian policy. Since the early 1800s, soldiers stationed in frontier posts frequently opened Indian burial sites and shipped the contents to Morton.

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.

The Surgeon General said in 1863 that the Army Medical Museum had 143 specimens of skulls. The reason for the collection was stated as anthropological research on Native people. Army personnel in Indian country were encouraged to contribute skulls. But it was not only the military seizing Indian crania.

Riding In said during the Gold Rush in California, tribal burial sites were ravaged by exploiters searching for Indian treasure. In one instance, three hundred skulls were taken, exhibited in San Francisco, then sold to Harvard University’s Peabody Museum.

Across the United States, university researchers carted off thousands of human remains in the name of science.

Riding In said Franz Boas, considered the father of cultural anthropology, is a case in duplicity. "While professing friendship and gathering oral traditions in British Columbia, Canada, in 1886, Boas stole Indian bodies," Riding In said.

While promoting his career, Boaz wrote in his diary, "Yesterday I wrote to the Museum in Washington asking whether they would consider buying skulls this winter for $600." 

Riding In said, "Archaeology, a branch of anthropology that still attempts to sanctify this tradition of exploiting dead Indians, arose as an honorable profession from this sacrilege."

Calling it "virulent racism," Riding In said archaeologists must be viewed as the grave looters their history proves them to be. American Indians painstakingly prepare their dead for burial.

A California Indian pleaded at the time of his death that he be buried in his homeland, so his spirit would not wander homeless and friendless in a strange country. Many Native people feel that "disinterment stops the spiritual journey of the dead, causing the affected spirits to wander aimlessly in limbo."

"These affected spirits can wreak havoc among the living, bringing sickness, emotional distress, and even death," Riding In said.

Navajo, Apache, Pawnee and other tribes believe that anyone that disrupts a grave is an "evil, profane, and demented individual who plans to use the dead as a means of harming the living."

Reburial within Mother Earth enables those spirits to continue their journeys.

Thomas Jefferson, before becoming the third president, took a lead in unearthing Indian graves in the name of science.

In his "Notes on the State of Virginia," Jefferson admits to excavating for the sake of curiosity an Indian burial site in Virginia where about 1,000 human remains were interned.

Riding In said regardless of Jefferson’s attempt to understand Indian people, he remains a "racial imperialist," a person who philosophized against slavery and owned slaves.

Further, Jefferson was the architect of the Indian removal policy, a disastrous program that uprooted and relocated tens of thousands of eastern Indians west of the Mississippi River between the 1810s and 1850s.

With Indian people removed from their ancestral lands, grave looters robbed tribal graves and carried away the contents.

"Jefferson’s diggings had lasting ramifications. Jefferson gave an illusion of morality to the expropriation of contents from Indian graves," Riding In said. Further, generations looked upon Jefferson with admiration. And while non-Indians are quick to bring to justice the perpetrators of the Holocaust in Europe, they turn a blind eye to the Holocaust carried out by their own ancestors.

The Catholic Church’s beatification of Father Junipero Serra disgusted California Mission Indians, who knew him as an enslaver of Indians. Serra’s missions were no more than concentration camps. Brutal slave labor, starvation and disease killed all but a fraction of the Native population. California Mission Indians denied archaeologists permission to study the remains of individuals who died while in Serra’s missions.

From these tragedies, the Indian burial rights movement was born in the 1970s. The Native American Rights Fund emerged as a fighter for burial rights and repatriation. But the movement carried a stronger message: Indians are part of humankind and deserve to be treated as such.

Walter Echo-Hawk pointed out that while religious concerns are important, the major issue is equality under the law. "Indians, as members of the human race and the United States, should receive the same burial protection taken for granted by every other racial and ethnic group," Riding In said.

State laws are often racist in nature, often charging a person looting an Indian grave with a misdemeanor while charging those who commit the same crime against a marked cemetery with a felony.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, passed by Congress in 1990, makes it a crime to disturb graves on federal and tribal lands and makes it a crime to sell human remains.

But, the federal law requires the victims -- Indian people -- to bear the cost of reburying their dead, rather than those who committed the crimes – archaeologists, museum curators, physical anthropologists and others.

Riding In said legislation should address two issues: Should scholars use information gained through the theft of human remains; should universities and libraries pull from their shelves research based on immoral acts.

Those immoral acts were committed against individuals, families and communities. 

Harry Coons, a Skidi Pawnee from Oklahoma visited a site in Nebraska in 1896 where he had lived as a boy. Coons discovered the gravesites of his sisters had been pillaged.

Riding In said, "Grave looting has caused Indians a great deal of suffering, mental anguish, and distress." Riding In, who also authored a factual biography of Geronimo, is an assistant professor of justice studies at Arizona State University.

ASU’s Law School course materials for the symposium include Riding In’s essay, "Without Ethics or Morality: A Historical Overview of Imperial Archaeology and American Indians."

About the author

Brenda Norrell has been a news reporter in Indian country for 40 years. She began at the Navajo Times during the 18 years that she lived on the Navajo Nation. She served as a correspondent for Lakota Times, Associated Press and USA Today. After serving as a longtime staff reporter for Indian Country Today, she began Censored News to show what was being censored. Now a collective, with no ads, grants or salaries, Censored News has 22 million page views. She has a master's degree in international health focused on water, nutrition and infectious diseases.

Copyright Brenda Norrell, Censored News

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