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Dealing with the Dead

Learning respect at Dickson Mounds

Illinois Times


The people who run state government for us here in Illinois are faced with many awkward problems, and none faced by Gov. Jim Edgar was more awkward than the decision to close the open grave exhibit at the state-owned Dickson Mounds Museum outside Havana. In retrospect, he made the correct decision, but much was lost and at the time I was very exercised about it. This piece revisits some of the issues I addressed in my 1992 piece for the Reader, which you can find here.

See also "Dealing with the Dead," "Skeletons in Our Closet," and "Old Bones."


On November 25 of last year—three days before Thanksgiving, the holiday that celebrates the short-lived amity between this continent's native peoples and its new European emigrés—Gov. Jim Edgar ordered the Dickson Mounds burial display closed. He did this 15 months after his predecessor, James Thompson, had ordered it left open. Edgar's reversal of Thompson's reversal of the museum's reversal was the result of a compromise under whose terms Indian protesters would not be allowed to actually rebury the bones in situ but would be allowed to cover them. The museum was promised a badly needed fix-up as part of an attempt to reorient it from a bone show to a general-purpose archaeological museum, thus preserving its viability in terms of both science and show biz.


Sometime this spring, then, the bones will be re-interred in place, with attendant ceremony, in a limestone vault that will be covered with dirt. The vault will preserve the scientific sanctity of the remains, although their cultural sanctity will be compromised by being put into what amounts to a white man's tomb.


Edgar's decision exorcised some political ghosts, but not all the issues unearthed at Dickson Mounds were laid to rest. Edgar's staff promised that the Dickson Mounds dead would be reburied according to "Mississippian" custom. Little is known for certain about the religious beliefs of the Spoon River peoples, although a great deal has been inferred from archeological and anthropological evidence. That evidence links their beliefs to that body of belief known to today's anthropologists as the Southern Cult or Southeastern Ceremonial Complex practiced by the Indians of the southeastern U.S. Evidence of the latter among the dead at Dickson are the headless skeletons of four young males who lie side by side, arms slightly akimbo, with jars at their shoulders—presumably "in-group" members sacrificed when a high-ranking community member died.


Certain aspects of burial ceremony have proven remarkably persistent among native Americans of the mid-continent. The dusting of bodies with red ocher is a practice known among historical Plains Indians, and at the Koster site in Calhoun County one infant was found so treated in a grave that dates back 10,000 years. But little else seems to have remained constant across the centuries. In Illinois, some prehistoric remains were interred in oval pits, some covered with stone or logs; others were left to decompose. During some periods bodies were bent as they were laid in the ground; later, bodies were left stretched out. In some eras, corpses were aligned with the summer or winter solstices, or at 90 degrees to these axes; in others their arrangement was indifferent to the compass.


Indeed, some respected students of the subject, like Jon Muller and Jeanette Stephens, argue that the term "Mississippian" means a lot more to anthropologists that it would to anyone buried at Dickson Mounds. They insist that what has been called Mississippian was a cultural adaptation to a specific floodplain environment, and that social systems in upland societies like that of the Spoon River peoples faced different circumstances and thus diverged from the Mississippian culture at Cahokia to the extent of those differences.


So which grave ceremony might be appropriate for the re-interment of the Dickson Mounds bones? The reburial by Delaware and Lakota medicine men of the remains of 20 individuals looted from federal land at the Fitzgibbon site in Gallatin County in 1984 led to complaints from Indians with roots in the area that the medicine men had used the wrong ceremony. (In Ohio, similar quarrels have broken out among Indian groups who dispute each other's legitimacy and thus their claim to the ownership of remains being repatriated by that state.)


Michael Haney was the de facto leader of the Indian protesters and the man who proved that when it comes to embarrassing the Great White Father in Springfield, a dead Indian is a very good Indian indeed. Haney promised that the re-interment would be superintended by what he called "our spiritual leaders." Historic Illinois tribes had links with peoples like Haney's to the west and north, but in ancient times the affinities of trade and culture connected the Spoon River people to territory to the south and east. The difference may be, indeed probably is slight, rather like the difference between a Baptist and a Presbyterian grave ceremony. The point is, no one knows.


Edgar's deal may have set a worrisome precedent under which Indian claimants can force the repatriation of other curated remains. The storerooms of Illinois museums and universities are crammed with thousands and thousands of bones acquired through past excavations. When Edgar's negotiators sat down with Indian representatives they carried a message from the governor: Only the bones in the burial display at Dickson Mounds were on the table. No deal would be struck that involved any other collection.


However, the standards of evidence required by the new federal law (upon which any lawsuit would be based) are less stringent for human remains than they are for, say, religious objects. More worrisome to some was the fact that the deal appeared to tacitly accept the claims of Oklahomans on what the law at least recognizes as Illinois property. Lawrence Conrad, director of the Archaeological Research Lab at Western Illinois University, blasted Edgar's closing compromise on just such grounds. Conrad argued in effect that Indian claimants—these particular Indian claimants anyway—have no more inherent right to a say about these bones than do the Zulu or the Sons of Canute.


Jonathan Haas is the Field Museum's vice president for collections and research, and a man who helped negotiate the terms of the new Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act. "If you go back farther than 500 years, ancestry multiplies almost geometrically. No one group can speak for such remains unless all the descended groups speak with one voice, which is unlikely." Edgar aide Al Grosboll replies that the deal was a political, not a legal agreement, and thus is not grounds for assertions of legal rights by any party in the future. The deal did not preclude such claims, however. And as Edgar's own reversal of Thompson's 1990 order showed, the political agreements of one administration are not binding on the next. ●

Revised 03/02/2021




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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