The Desecration of Indian Corpses

The Desecration of Indian Corpses January 19, 2017

In February 1850, Mormon settlers began a brief but bloody campaign against several bands of Ute Indians in Utah Valley. On February 13, the Mormons captured a group of Indians, promising them their lives and safety. They lied. “[W]e shall deal with them in the most summary manner as soon as another day favors us with its light,” militia commander Daniel H. Wells informed Young. The next morning, the soldiers disarmed and shot the male Indians. Jared Farmer has an excellent account of the Mormon conquest of Utah Valley in his On Zion’s Mount.

The grisly scenes continued beyond the executions, however. According to expedition participant Abner Blackburn, U.S. Army surgeon James Blake (with Blackburn’s assistance) decapitated the slain Indians and sent their heads to Washington for medical research.

When I read Blackburn’s account (in his journal, edited and published by Will Bagley), I was almost incredulous. Did a U.S. Army surgeon in what would become the Utah Territory really decapitate Indians and send their heads back to the East?

I recalled the Utah Valley decapitations when reading Samuel Redman’s macabre but fascinating Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums. Redman begins his book with the death of a Dakota man in rural Minnesota in 1864. Soldiers took the corpse to a nearby fort. Settlers carried away his scalp as a souvenir. Then someone buried the body.

A few months later, however, his corpse was exhumed. The bones were brought to a military doctor, Alfred Muller, who noted that the body had received “unnecessary ill treatment.” Despite his unease at the man’s posthumous abuse, Muller did not rebury the corpse. Instead, he boxed up the bones and sent them to the nation’s capital, because the army had opened a medical museum. The man’s hand had been missing. Muller found it a few weeks later and sent it in another package.9780674660410-lg

The remains ended up in the Smithsonian, which along with other museums was organizing “bone rooms” and assembling massive collections of Indian remains.

The Dakota man’s skeleton went on display. More than a century later, his bones were returned to the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota Nation for reburial. “Only through the process of bringing him home,” Redman observes, “was the young man fully humanized as an individual.” The repatriation came after the passage of a pair of laws (the National Museum of the American Indian Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act).

The Smithsonian collected 33,000 sets of human remains, the majority Native American. Per Redman, the institution still has around 29,000. The overall numbers are staggering. Redman cites recent estimates of 500,000 sets of Indian remains in U.S. museums. Perhaps another half-million sets of Native American remains in Europe. American museums hold smaller collections of African American and other remains.

In the nineteenth century, collectors and curators sought bones partly because of popular fascination with Indian remains and partly because scholars wanted them for the purpose of racial and racial classification. In the late 1800s, doctors, scientists, and collectors examined the size and shapes of thousands of skulls and used displays of nonwhite human remains to support the pseudoscientific racism of the era. As those ideas were gradually discredited, scholars turned their attention to human prehistory and evolution.

When he first encountered bone collections and witnessed a repatriation and reburial, Redman writes that he was deeply unsettled. How could this happen? “Given the centrality of death and burial in the human experience, how could seemingly sacred principles be violated so directly and systematically?”

In 1834, Joseph identified an Indian skeleton as that of a Lamanite warrior named Zelph.
In 1834, Joseph identified an Indian skeleton as that of a Lamanite warrior named Zelph. Source of Illustration: Charles MacKay, The Mormons (1851).

Sadly, the white desecration of Indian remains has a very long history, as does Euro-American collecting and trade of those remains. The separatists who founded Plymouth Colony were relatively respectful of Indian graves. Early in their explorations of Cape Cod, they came across “certain heaps of sand” (the source is Edward Winslow (in what has become known as Mourt’s Relation). Under the mounds, they found buried weapons and “many other things, but because we deemed them graves, we put in the Bow again and made it up as it was, and left the rest untouched, because we thought it would be odious unto them to ransack their sepulchers.”

So far, so good. Within two decades, however, there was a remarkable circulation of Indian body parts among the Dutch, English, and several native peoples. (See the discussion in Andrew Lipman’s The Saltwater Frontier). While the scientific study of Indian remains was mostly a mid-nineteenth-century development, the accumulation and circulation of native remains was nothing new. Had I kept this history in mind, I would not have been as surprised to read about a U.S. Army surgeon asking a Mormon settler to help him cut the heads off of executed Indian men. I wonder if the skulls are still in the nation’s capital.


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