Dealing with the Dead
Learning respect at Dickson Mounds
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.
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 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, the only good Indian is a dead Indian. 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. ●