Old Bones

Sacrilege and science at Dickson Mounds

Illinois Times

May 23, 1990

Alert readers of this archive will note that I wrote more than once about Dickson Mounds, the state-owned Middle Woodland period burial site in Fulton County. It is a summary of arguments I made in lengthier treatments about the proposed enclosure of the open burials. I don't think I would argue this case in quite this way today.

 

This version has been edited for content, as I did not want to perpetuate what I did not then recognize as an egregious anthropological error.

 

"What do you think about closing up Dickson Mounds?" The question came on a postcard from a high school friend who now lives in Wisconsin. She had studied anthropology at college in the Southwest, where she indulged an interest in prehistoric American Indian cultures. She and her husband still spend their summers on digs, members of that community of educated amateurs without whom hardly any archaeology would get done in this country at all. "Seeing that place," she continued, referring to the exposed Indian burials that are the principal artifact at Dickson Mounds, “inspired me to study archaeology in the first place."

Several months ago the Illinois State Museum, which owns and manages the site, announced plans to close the burial wing. Museum staff joined a trend by deciding that the display of remains in situ was disrespectful of the dead if not actually sacrilegious. No doubt they thought they were doing the right thing, that having exploited the Indian in life the state should have no part in exploiting him in death too. The fact that it was another bunch of white people deciding what red people wanted just proves that Indians don‘t have the only culture that respects its traditions.

 

Dead Illinoisans have been controversial before this—remember the 1960 presidential election? the last commission city council in Springfield?—but never so peculiarly The museum's closing decision, for example, was preemptive, designed to forestall protests by Indian groups that had not yet been made. Imagine DCCA brass volunteering to refund their 1989 budget allocation on the chance that taxpayers might complain that their money was being wasted, and you have an idea just how weird the decision was.

Governor Thompson overrode the closing plan, pending his own review, and has since made two trips to the museum. The prospect of a governor vetoing a policy decision by agency professionals usually leaves me uneasy but in this case it was the museum professionals who acted in a politically craven manner.

 

Inevitably, many silly things were said. The locals‘ complaints that closing would hurt their tourism economy may be dismissed as irrelevant if not crass. Supporters of the museum argued the "what-if-that-was-your-grandmother" case, forgetting that the dead at Dickson Mounds are not anybody’s grandmothers. The builders of Dickson Mounds died out centuries ago, a failed culture that left not only no known descendants but no knowable descendants; the historic Illinois tribes are unrelated by blood to their territorial predecessors, and in any event none of them survive either.

Indian spokesmen eventually rose to support both the museums decision and its rationale. Most are descendants of Plains tribes, advancing a generic ethnic point of view. Asking a Plains Indian of the 1990s his views of the closing of a thousand-year-old Middle Woodland burial site in Illinois is like asking me, whose ancestors came to Illinois from Germany in the 1830s, what I think of the one-to-one exchange rate of East German and West German marks. I have an opinion, but if it is sound it won't be because l am "German.”

People get sentimental about the dead, which makes it hard for them to talk sensibly about anybody’s bones. The question was asked during the Dickson Mounds debate whether white people like me would not be offended if, say; Abraham Lincoln's bones were put on display I cannot speak for all white people, but it wouldn’t bother me. (Ronald Reagan’s corpse was constantly on display between 1980 and 1988, for example.) l don't think that respecting the dead obliges me to respect their skeletons too. Investing the remains of the dead with sacred or magical significance is a practice the West once dismissed as primitive; it is proof of our sentimentalization of Indians and other non-Western people that we now applaud, even envy their primitiveness because it leaves them in closer touch with the primordial than we are . . . .

A cemetery of any era is both sacred ground, a teaching text, and a garbage dump. Which you see when you visit the place depends a lot on who you are and why you are there. Sacrilege, we could say, is in the eye of the beholder. By defining sacrilege in terms of what is reviewed rather than how it is viewed we create no end of tangles. If it is sacrilegious for a tourist to gaze upon Indian remains, is it not also sacrilegious for a scientist to gaze upon them? Would not a policy banning the exposure of Indian burials put an end to mortuary archaeology in North America? I am not too concerned if the religious want to perpetuate their own ignorance about their past, but I resent it when they try to perpetuate mine. Which right is more precious? Your right to believe, or my right to know?

The Indian has been much wronged, and I would like to be able to agree with a friend of mine, who says that it would be nice to see the Indians win one for a change. This sort of magnanimity is a luxury enjoyed only by conquerors, of course; having taken the Indians' continent, letting them have a museum is getting off cheap. But political accommodations, however well-meaning, make lousy principles. Any religion that insists that the world be seen the way it sees it wants to be obeyed rather than respected; that’s what makes most religions attractive to their adherents, and dangerous to the rest of us.

The Art Institute in Chicago is crammed with images in paint and stone that believers of one stripe or another might find offensive. That more do not is because the images speak in symbolic languages that have been forgotten; what once was polemic or apology is now just art. (The flap over a students painting of Mayor Harold Washington in a bra and garters shows how incendiary images can still be when they use symbolic language that is understood.) Many of the great churches of the world are as much museums as places of worship for that reason.

 

Dickson Mounds strikes me as a kind of church. I am no poet and thus can’t describe my reactions on my first visit to Dickson Mounds as a young man. I had seen plenty of Indian artifacts before, in other places. Rather than establish a kinship with their vanished authors, all those remains of stone axes and mud huts, while interesting in their way, merely confirmed my sense of their backwardness and thus their distance from me as a late twentieth century technological sophisticate. But seeing the burials brought home my kinship with the Middle Woodland people more vividly than any other display could have. My house may be manifestly superior in every way to theirs, but my bones are their bones. They look no different in their graves than I will look in mine someday The vestiges of ceremony visible among the bones spoke of sentiment and tradition which pulled at me, who also knows what it feels like to respect and love other humans.

 

Remembering all that, I think I understand why my archaeologist friend‘s visit to Dickson Mounds made her an archaeologist. It's not that the graves made these people seem important so much as they made them seem truly human for the first time. Their ownership being otherwise impossible to establish, I prefer to consider those bones not as an Indian legacy, but a human one. ●

SITES

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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

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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

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McLean County Museum

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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.

Chicagology

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

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Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

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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

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The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

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Journal of Illinois HIstory

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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

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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.

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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

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