Cultural Imperialism: American Indian Remains in Cardboard Boxes


Jan Hammil

In April 1986, at the Plenary Session of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), for the first time within the profession, Indian speakers and archaeologists appeared together and addressed the issue of the remains of some 500 000 American Indians currently stored in cardboard boxes, paper sacks and plastic bags in archaeological laboratories, museums and universities throughout the United States of America. Two of the three Indian speakers were Maria Pearson, a member of the Iowa Indian Commission, and Jan Hammil, Director of American Indians Against Desecration (AIAD).

A project of the American Indian Movement and the International Indian Treaty Council, AIAD was formed in 1980 for the purpose of addressing and challenging the archaeological treatment of Indian remains, and the desecration of sacred Indian burial sites. Although the focus of attention by AIAD and other Indian organizations had been limited to local, state and national boundaries, Indian people have been aware for some time that excavations and international trading practices between universities and museums had resulted in thousands of Indian remains and sacred objects being shipped and stored in facilities throughout Europe, thereby making the treatment of American Indian burials and the violation of traditional Indian religious beliefs an international problem.

Present at the SAA Plenary Session were representatives of the World Archaeological Congress, which resulted in invitations to the American Indian speakers to attend the September Congress in Southampton, England. AIAD had previously considered attending the Southampton meeting, but had rejected the idea because of the progress then being made between archaeologists and Indian people within the United States over the ‘reburial’ issue. That decision was reconsidered when, following the Plenary Session, the Executive Committee of the SAA adopted a policy on the treatment of human remains which included the following statement:

The weight accorded to any claim made by an individual or group concerning particular human remains should depend upon the strength of their demonstrated biological or cultural affinity with the remains in question.

Such a policy placed unreasonable requirements on the American Indian, and was obviously formulated in the knowledge that such a requirement could never be met by Indian people, particularly when considering the genocide policies pursued against the Indian nations by the United States’ government. The SAA statement was therefore viewed as an insult to the Indian people. The limited contact that previously existed between the American Indians and the Executive Committee of the SAA was therefore halted. Further polarization developed as we at AIAD became aware of lobbying efforts by members of the SAA’s Executive Committee to various federal agencies, stating the SAA’s opposition to contact with Indian people in general, and with AIAD specifically, over the treatment of American Indian remains. As such agencies are required to consult with traditional spiritual leaders under the American Indian Freedom of Religion Act, these efforts by the SAA’s Executive Committee were viewed as attempts to subvert the constitutional right of the American Indian.

While many archaeologists viewed the lack of contact with the Indians as being of no particular concern, AIAD had been very clear that it was totally unacceptable for American archaeologists to continue to ignore the ‘problem’, emphasising that whatever means necessary would be taken to ensure that the issue and storage of 500 000 Indian bodies would be addressed. Whether solutions resulted in third party intervention, judicial review, or federal legislation to exclude scientific interest, as opposed to Indian people and archaeologists seeking reasonable working relationships, is, from our position, immaterial. To the extent that such third party intervention would affect scientists throughout the world we suggest that decisions by archaeologists in America will affect the interests of all archaeologists, and we question whether such interest is being accurately protected, voiced and represented.

As predicted, the position taken by the Executive Committee of the SAA resulted in litigation (Hammil & Means vs AMREP) halting a S17 000 000 construction project in the state of New Mexico. While this litigation resulted in the return and replacement of the Pueblo remains and sacred objects previously removed from the site, it also resulted in the removal of the archaeologist employed by AMREP, all fulfilling demands made by AIAD in the course of litigation. Additional preparation of legal actions by other Indian organizations occurred, as well as the introduction of federal legislation by Senator Melcher of Wyoming, all with the specific intent of limiting future input by archaeologists into the treatment and disposition of Indian burials. Simply stated, if archaeologists in the United States decided to ignore the effects of their profession on the religious practices, customs and traditions of the American Indian, we found little alternative but to respond by excluding the profession, arguing that while the US Constitution ensured the right of religious freedom it remained silent on the right of scientific study.

Under such a negative atmosphere, invitations to the World Archaeological Congress were accepted by the various Indian organizations, including the Intertribal Council of Arizona as represented by Cecil Antone, and Steve Moore of the Native American Rights Fund. Representing AIAD was myself as Director, and Robert Cruz from the Papago Reservation in Southern Arizona.

While many significant advantages resulted for Indian participants in the Congress, one of the most important was the realization that the respect and sanctity of all graves was universal, particularly amongst third world peoples. While many Indians were aware that the treatment of the Australian Aboriginal remains had been addressed, few had the opportunity, until Southampton, to meet and discuss with either the people or the archaeologists the events and current status of such relationships. On the contrary, American Indians had been led to believe that our respect for our ancestors’ graves was indicative of some form of abnormality unique to the American Indian.

As usual, communications between the Indian participants had occurred prior to our arrival in England. It was a surprise, however, that during the sessions all participants emphasized the frustration felt by Indian people concerning the treatment of our ancestors by the archaeological community, and addressed themselves to Indian concerns. Despite the partial boycott of the Congress by Americans as a result of the ban on South Africa, our session entitled ‘Material Culture and the Making of the Modern United States: Views from Native America’ was well attended, with archaeologists standing in the aisles and overflowing out of the hall. As the first paper was presented I sensed the reactions of both surprise and shock from non-American archaeologists to the objections being voiced by their colleagues from America. While we were pleased with the positive feed-back following the session we were very surprised when the enthusiasm extended and grew as the week progressed, resulting in invitations to attend and participate in other sessions involving third world interests. We found it interesting that many archaeologists who viewed Americans as being advanced in most areas of their profession expressed concerns about the retardation of the US archaeologists in the area of human relations.

For Indian people it was refreshing to learn that not all archaeologists feared discussion of the treatment of Indian remains with Indian people and, in fact, accepted and encouraged the development of a working relationship in attempts to resolve differences. One of the more important results of the Southampton Congress was the meeting of Indian people from throughout the Western hemisphere. While communications between the various nations in North America had been well established, for the first time discussions of mutual problems and concerns occurred with Indian peoples from South America, establishing that the same problem existed for all red people of the Western hemisphere.

As a result of Southampton, the issue of desecration has been brought to the international archaeological community. Whether a reformed World Archaeological Congress continues to exist is yet unclear. What remains clear is that the issue will not ‘go away’ simply because of an inability on the part of individuals, organizations or nations to address the issues. Equally clear, we hope, is the unacceptability of placing scientific interest over the religious beliefs, practices and customs of third world people.

It is our hope, however, that the most significant message retained as a result of Southampton will be that third world peoples have additional contributions to offer, other than as additions to collections, artifacts and objects of antiquity. The organizers of the World Archaeological Congress made a decision to include third world peoples as human beings in an atmosphere of respect for the right of each other to exist, thereby developing the potential for better relationships. We believe that such progress is important to all peoples; the white and black man as well as the red and yellow.

This page built by the blood sweat and OCR of Dave Redhouse, 22nd March, 1995