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Harjo: This isn't rocket science

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  • Harjo: This isn't rocket science

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    Harjo: This isn't rocket science

    (javascript:PrintWindow();) Posted: August 25, 2005 by: _Suzan Shown Harjo_
    ( / Indian Country Today
    White people in the soft sciences have studied Native people to death -
    and beyond - and what they're trying to prove is still a mystery.

    One thing they've learned is how to use ''studies'' to diminish Native
    people. Another thing they've learned is how to hold on to their collections of
    Native people for future ''studies.''

    In the 1980s, when I was executive director of the National Congress of
    American Indians, I selected a broad-based coalition of American Indians to deal
    with museums about collecting and studying our dead relatives.

    We were negotiating terms of accountability and protocol with the
    Smithsonian Institution for three years before getting some straight answers to our

    -- How many Native human remains are in your collections?

    -- To what Native nations and tribes are they related?

    -- What studies are being conducted on them?

    -- How do those studies help living Native people?

    Much to our surprise, it turned out that most of the federal and
    federally-assisted museums, educational institutions and agencies did not know what was
    in their collections.

    This discovery led directly to the requirement in national repatriation law
    in 1990 that all entities which receive federal monies must inventory their
    collections and communicate with the affected tribes and other relatives about
    their collections.

    The Smithsonian's preliminary inventory in the mid-1980s revealed a
    collection of some 23,000 human remains directly related to existing Native nations -
    4,500 Indian heads and 18,500 whole or partial Native bodies.

    These Native people were stored in long, green cardboard boxes stacked from
    floor to ceiling in the National Museum of Natural History. For one Alaska
    Native community, Larsen Bay, the Smithsonian had more human remains in its
    collection than there were in the community's own cemetery.

    Smithsonian scientists explained that they needed the extensive collection
    ''for study.'' When we inquired about the nature of these studies, we were
    told that they were for ''the Indians' benefit.''

    When we asked for an example, we were told, ''We can prove conclusively that
    you ate corn.'' We could have told them that Native people ate corn and
    still do eat corn, and saved them all that rooting around in Indian graves.

    The Smithsonian's 4,500 Indian heads came from the U.S. Army Surgeon
    General's ''Indian Crania Study'' of the late 1800s.

    Specimens for that ''study'' were sought jointly by the Army Medical Museum
    and the Smithsonian, which even advertised in newspapers for readers to
    ''harvest'' Indian skulls and paid bounties for the dead. Indians were decapitated
    at massacre and battle sites, at forts and prisons. Indian bodies were
    exhumed from burial grounds, scaffolds and caves.

    One Army officer reported waiting ''until cover of darkness'' after the
    ''grieving family left'' the grave, then digging up and decapitating the

    What scientific methodology was used? The military man or the ordinary
    citizen would weigh the brain, measure the skull, soak the head in lye and ship it
    off as freight to Washington, D.C., where it was warehoused for later

    The study of heads was abandoned as invalid in 1898, when tests proved that
    the French were not as smart as Cro-Magnon Man.

    One of the collected heads was that of Kintpuash, the Modoc leader known as
    Captain Jack, whose head was severed after he was hanged by the Army in 1873.
    His descendants learned that his skull was on the desk of a Smithsonian
    scientist, being used variously as a paperweight or ashtray.

    The scientist obviously had concluded his ''study,'' and Kintpuash's
    relatives took him home in 1984.

    Relatives of Apache leader Mangus Colorado and other Indian leaders are not
    so fortunate. The majority of heads collected for the ''Indian Crania Study''
    disappeared after being sent to American and European scientists and museums
    for their ''study.''

    Native people continue to search for and mourn the loss of these fallen and
    captured relatives. Many of the scientists look at Native remains as bones,
    skeletons, specimens, material and property - everything except human beings -
    and use language of white supremacy, such as ''pre-history'' and

    Most of the ''studies'' seem designed to prove who is Native and who is not,
    and to support the Manifest Destiny theories that Native people came from
    anywhere but this hemisphere.

    Dr. Ales Hrdlicka, the Smithsonian's top scientist for 40 years until the
    1940s, was an early proponent of the notion of a common origin for all people.
    He came up with the bright idea that all Native people started in Asia and
    came here across the Bering Strait 12,000 years ago. While there is ample
    evidence to refute this theory, it continues to be taught in schools.

    One of Hrdlicka's favorite ''studies'' was the ''Indian scratch test.'' He
    would scratch a person's chest with the nail of his forefinger. If it left a
    mark, the person was not Indian. If no mark was visible, the person was an

    True to the legacy of Hrdlicka, the organization he founded - the American
    Association of Physical Anthropologists - is pushing for federal regulations
    to declare that increased numbers of Native human remains are not American
    Indian and can continue to be ''studied.''

    U.S. repatriation policy prohibits studies of Native dead without the
    consent of the next of kin or culturally affiliated relatives. If the dead are
    declared to be not Native, then they aren't covered by the repatriation laws and
    can be studied until there's nothing left to study.

    This is the fate of the Ancient One, known as Kennewick Man, who was
    judicially declared to be not Native, despite evidence that he is related to living
    American Indian peoples.

    When a repatriation amendment to fix this problem was proposed last year,
    Hrdlicka's progeny mobilized their brotherhood of professional and amateur
    archaeologists and physical anthropologists to oppose the legislation.

    Two of the Kennewick case plaintiffs, Drs. Douglas Owsley and Dennis
    Stanford, both Smithsonian physical anthropologists/archaeologists, organized the
    lobby effort against the amendment through the Smithsonian e-mail system.

    Their campaign started on Sept. 29, 2004, nearly 15 years to the day after
    codification of the historic repatriation agreement between the Smithsonian
    and Indian country in the 1989 National Museum of the American Indian Act.

    Their campaign was launched only seven days after the opening of the
    Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall and its promise of
    a new day for Native people.

    It is not clear what ''studies'' they want to conduct or are illegally
    conducting on these Native human remains. The predictable response from the
    would-be studiers is: What if studies could lead to a cure for diabetes? Wouldn't
    you want to have them?

    Yes, of course. Native people are curious and practical, and are not
    anti-science or opposed to beneficial studies. However, in the 27 years since I was
    first asked that question, there have been no anthropological or
    archaeological ''studies'' that have contributed to treating or curing diabetes among
    Native people.

    As with the scientific conclusion that we eat corn, they can prove that we
    didn't have diabetes and now we do. Will they continue to ''study'' until
    there are no more Native Americans to scratch?

    Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the
    Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C. and a columnist for Indian Country
    Don't worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear... just sing, sing a song.sigpic

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