How did the ghoulish practice of grave-digging become an “innocent hobby” for so many white people in the US?
A recent FBI press release is a reminder that digging up and robbing Native American graves is still considered acceptable by many Americans and barely treated as a crime. Our dead, like butterflies pinned to a collector’s board, are treated as stuff for collectors and hobbyists. We are “artifacts.”
On February 27, 2019, the FBI issued a press release and a unique request. The Bureau’s Art Crime Team is reaching out to tribes in the United States for help in repatriating approximately 500 sets of human remains looted from Native American burial grounds. The remains were found during a 2014 FBI raid on a vast collection of artifacts and antiquities from around the world held by Don Miller of rural Rush County, Indiana.
The Normalization of Grave-Digging in White Culture
I covered the 2014 Indiana case as a journalist for Indian Country Today and also covered other cases of illegal Native American artifact and remains hunting and collecting. I continue to be baffled by the complete disrespect white folks have for Native American graves versus the respect they have for those of their own ancestors. Even more baffling to me is the urge to dig up and own the dead — anybody’s dead. What internal mental process transforms grave-digging into an acceptable hobby?
The short answer is racism. Multigenerational, entrenched racism has so thoroughly scrubbed clean the practice of Native American artifact hunting and collecting that it has been normalized and elevated as an acceptable right for the descendants of European settlers.
The European settlers who conquered and dominated Native peoples sought to justify their violence by casting us as less than human. This violence continues in the current day, with some portraying us as denizens of a long dead past and others treating us as part of nature’s fauna.
Many amateur white American archaeologists and collectors are still influenced by the right of conquest mentality that continues to endorse the objectification and ownership of Native peoples and the entirety of our patrimony.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) enacted in 1990 makes removing Native American cultural items, such as human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects or items of cultural patrimony from federal and tribal land illegal. Trafficking in these items is also against the law. NAGPRA includes a process for repatriation of remains and objects to affiliated tribes. Hunting for artifacts on private land, however, is not illegal. Although trafficking in human remains and other cultural items is a crime, these cases are seldom prosecuted.
After covering the Indiana case, I wrote a series entitled “People of the Dirt,” in which I interrogated the practice of digging for and collecting artifacts. I described the extensive subculture of digging and collecting and the lucrative market place for these items. I learned that unbroken pottery items have almost always been taken from burial sites. I spoke with several Native people including Ben Barnes, second chief and former Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Shawnee tribe of Oklahoma.
“When you remove the bones of my loved ones from the earth where they are interred, you remove them from the proxim[ity] of family,” Barnes told me in an interview conducted for the “People of the Dirt” series.
According to Kathy Jefferson Bancroft, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone reservation in California, whom I also quoted in the “People of the Dirt” piece, “Disturbing our graves is the worst thing you can do to us.”
In the course of my research, I uncovered a world of those obsessed with artifacts. Collectors and amateur archaeologists adamantly defend their plundering of graves and artifacts as harmless and even frame their activities as a means to honor Native Americans. By challenging the good intentions of these “collectors,” however, I unwittingly unleashed a wave of entitled white anger and fragility I hadn’t bargained for. For months after the articles were published, I received numerous threatening emails and phone calls. Outraged readers accused me of inaccurate reporting, saying I falsely portrayed their hobby as a form of racism. Others threatened me with bodily harm.
In discussing these dynamics for my “People of the Dirt“ series, Barnes reflected that artifact collectors appear to “lack the ability to see remains and artifacts as connected to living cultures.”
FBI Efforts to Repatriate Stolen Remains
Clearly, changing the narrative around artifact hunting and collecting is slow going. But the public attitude is finally beginning to change, albeit at a glacial pace. Some of the change is being forwarded by an unlikely ally for Native Americans — the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“Historically, the FBI hasn’t had a good relationship with Indian Country,” said Pete Coffey, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of the Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota.
In the 1960s and 1970s the FBI targeted the American Indian Movement (AIM) as part of its infamous COINTELPRO operation designed to destabilize the civil rights movement. Today, the FBI is responsible for policing a large portion of reservations but is criticized for its poor record of bringing cases reported by tribal members to prosecution. For instance, in 2012 the Department of Justice, the agency overseeing the FBI, filed charges in about 50 percent of murder investigations in Indian Country and turned down two-thirds of sexual assault cases.
However, after the FBI raid that unearthed Don Miller’s vast collection of human remains looted from Native American burial grounds, the FBI unexpectedly exhibited proactive concern for Indigenous communities’ interest in repatriating the remains.
“The FBI reached out to us first. We were surprised,” Coffey said.
Coffey, of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes, helped repatriate some of the remains and artifacts found among Miller’s huge collection.
Stymied by the enormity and disarray of Miller’s holdings, the FBI is struggling to find a means to respectfully repatriate the remains. In February, the FBI announced the creation of an invitation-only website that contains information about all the recovered material. (Official representatives of tribes can submit a request to claim items to the Bureau’s art theft program at email@example.com.)
The idea is to have the experts “come to us and guide us in the repatriation process,” FBI Agent Tim Carpenter told Truthout.
“We weren’t prepared for the amount of ancestral remains we found in the Miller case,” Carpenter said.
Don Miller’s Collection Offers Gruesome Example of Dehumanization in Action
Miller’s collection is the largest recovery of remains found in a single case according to Carpenter. There were over 2,000 individual bones, likely representing 500 people.
“It was traumatizing, shocking to the senses even for seasoned agents to see how the remains in Miller’s collection were treated,” Carpenter said.
Holly Cusack-McVeigh, a professor of anthropology and museum studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis described her shock over Miller’s treatment of the remains in his collection. Cusack-McVeigh has been involved with the case since its beginning in 2013, guiding the FBI on handling and repatriating the remains.
“The remains were completely comingled. And worse, they were manipulated,” she told Truthout.
For instance, Miller inserted a spear point into one of the skulls kept in a display case.
“Miller was a showman; he mixed and manipulated his collection to create his desired effect,” said Larry Zimmerman, a retired professor of anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis who also worked on the case and spoke with Truthout about the experience.
Investigators also found the remains of several infants. “As a mother, finding the remains of babies was haunting; I won’t rest until those babies are back home,” Cusack-McVeigh said.
“This is a human rights issue. All people have the right to bury their dead with their cultural protocols,” she said. “These ancestors deserve to be treated with the same love and care they received when they were first buried.”
A Case Study in White Fragility and Unimpeachable Innocence
Before Miller passed away in 2015 at the age of 91, he agreed to relinquish his collection to the FBI. He was not charged with a crime. Agents described him as cooperative throughout the investigation.
Miller and his collection were well known in his community, where he was considered a beloved neighbor, despite his grisly plundering and manipulation of Native remains. He regularly invited school and scouting groups to view his collection. The FBI raid in 2014 outraged neighbors who felt Miller had done nothing wrong even though he admitted that much of his collection was obtained illegally.
In the handful of NAGPRA cases prosecuted by the federal government, right-wing federalists denounced the actions as overkill and aggravating to citizens already distrustful of federal law enforcement.
Indeed, white fragility surrounding federal intervention in these violations is so powerful and pervasive that recent press coverage by CBS of the Miller case spent considerable time painting Miller as a beloved neighbor rather than a rampant grave robber who routinely violated federal laws.
After the CBS story in which Cusack-McVeigh describes actions by collectors like Miller as racist, she received angry, threatening messages via email and social media accusing her of overreacting and conflating an innocent hobby with racism.
“They aren’t digging white graves. Anybody who digs graves must be of the mentality that the people they are digging up aren’t human,” she said.
For Indigenous peoples, the practice of digging for artifacts, especially in graves, reflects not only a deep cultural hegemony of European conquest and entitlement over Indigenous peoples but also demonstrates a peculiar urge to accumulate that reflects contemporary acquisitive culture. “It’s about greed and the same sense of entitlement that led to the depopulation of Indigenous peoples from North America in the name of Manifest Destiny,” said Henrietta Mann of the Cheyenne Nation and emeritus professor at Montana State University’s Department of Native American Studies.
In the meantime, the ancestors’ bones from Miller’s collection languish in a secure facility near Indianapolis as they await tribes to claim them. The temperature, humidity and light in the FBI-leased space are carefully controlled — a far cry from the jumbled mess in which Miller kept the remains.
“Those spirits have been wandering since their graves were violated. When we repatriate, we do so with the least amount of attention. We feed them with tobacco and water and apologize to them and we rebury them,” said Coffey. “One of those ancestors could have been my great-great-grandfather.”