Monday, June 2, 2008

Grave Robbing, Another Chapter

In April, 1788, children - doing what children will do - peeked through the windows of the Society of the Hospital of the City of New York. Astounded, the children immediately ran to their homes and told their parents what they saw, medical students dissecting human cadavers. The parents then investigated their children’s claims, and one parent discovered that his late wife’s grave had been robbed. A mob, five thousand strong, stormed the hospital (and later the jail where several doctors took refuge), leading to a three-day riot which the militia dispersed only by firing muskets into the crowd. Thus came the major final action of the public against grave robbing, which had become rampant in the 1700’s. Western society did not look upon grave robbing with favor, especially if it involved members of the European race. Exceptions for obtaining bodies were made for those that were unclaimed, prisoners who were executed, those who died in war, or were of a minority.
Grave robbing is still an accepted practice in Western society, but only if the grave is that of a Native American. We have seen this time after time, involving not only “pot-hunters” but also state and university archeologists.

In 1963 - 1964, West Virginia's state archaeologist Dr. Edward Mc Michael led a dig just east of Buffalo, West Virginia, on WV Route 62. The site is near the present day Toyota plant in Buffalo. Now called the Buffalo Indian Village, the excavation revealed a village consisting of a central plaza surrounded by large ceremonial buildings, a semi-circle of ordinary houses, all of which were enclosed by a stockade.
Using earth-moving equipment borrowed from the state's Division of Highways, the excavation uncovered hundreds of artifacts of different types. Also dug up and removed were the remains of approximately 600 American Indians. These remains, which consist mostly of bone fragments because of the excavation, passed from institution to institution before ending up at Ohio State University in the mid-1990s. Currently held mixed together in almost 150 boxes, no research has ever been done on the remains other than cataloging and storing them.

The remains, which are between 400 to 500 years old, have been determined to be “culturally unidentifiable”. I personally find this hard to believe. After all, we are not talking about a 9,200 year old Kennewick Man. As with the final disposition efforts with other remains in recent years , a tug-of-war has ensued over the Buffalo Indian Village remains.

On one side are the scientists, archeologists, and museum officials who are becoming more vocal about losing the opportunity to study remains of Native Americans, ultimately putting many on display. On the other side are the Putnam County commissioners and supporting citizens who want to facilitate reburial in a private and dignified manner. Astonishingly, eleven federally recognized tribes that once had a historical connection with the area of now West Virginia have been contacted, but none have stepped forward to either claim the remains or express an interest in being involved in the reburial. This left the problem turned over to a NAGPRA review committee that was meeting in late May in Wisconsin. The committee then tabled the issue, leaving the two opponents to battle it out. The NAGPRA review committee is scheduled to meet again in October.

Whether or not any of the federally recognized tribes identify with the people of the Buffalo Indian Village should be immaterial. I submit that they have the moral duty and responsibility to become involved in seeing that the remains are reburied, just as the Puyallup tribe reclaimed the remains of twenty unidentified individuals from three Puget Sound area museums.

That the village might have been composed of one tribe or was multi-tribal makes no difference. The Creator knows who these people were. Bury the remains with respect. Let the archeologists who protest dig up and study the remains of their own ancestors. Who knows what interesting tidbits of information they might discover.

Meanwhile, a large voice of thanks to those in Putman County who have been working hard over the past decade to see that the remains are reburied with dignity. It’s a rare case of non-Indians doing something right for American Indians that Indians are apparently unwilling to do themselves.

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