Native America’s Necessary And Imperfect Law, Chip Colwell for HuffPost

Chip Colwell, HuffPost
April 28, 2017

"In the spring of 1872, the skull of an Apache woman was dug up from the earth. The year before she had been among 100 Apaches massacred by a vigilante group from Tucson, who believed her people, the Aravaipa and Pinal bands, had perpetrated a series of raids. (They were likely committed by unrelated Chiricahua Apaches.) The woman’s skull was exhumed by a U.S. Army surgeon named Valery Havard who hoped the skeletal remains could serve the new science of anthropology. He signed his name on the side of the skull and deposited it in the collections of the Army Medical Museum. The skull was later transferred to “America’s Attic,” the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History where it would stay for more than a century.

In 2013, the Smithsonian relinquished the woman’s skull to a group of Aravaipa Apache descendants for reburial. This would not have been possible except for federal laws guiding a process called repatriation—the return of human remains and cultural items to their homelands. For decades museum administrators and Native Americans clashed over the fate of collections—debating whether such objects honored humanity’s common heritage or they violated the human rights of Native Americans. These federal laws have done much to help end the war. But too many battles continue on.

Valery Havard’s action was not unique: Since 1620, when Pilgrims first plundered an Indian grave out of curiosity, Americans have habitually collected Native American remains as curios or objects of study. That habit became federal policy in 1868 when the U.S. Surgeon General ordered military personnel to collect skulls from battlefields, cemeteries, hospitals, and graves. Indian bodies soon became a cornerstone of American museums, used to build racial hierarchies that purported to show Europeans as intellectually and emotionally superior."