How foolish can one get? Four or five governors later, they’ll open it again.
–from a reader’s letter to Springfield’s State Journal-Register
In the summer of 1968 I was 19 years old and living uselessly in Springfield when the man who lived across the street asked me if I wanted a job digging holes in Fulton County. He was Robert L. Hall, Dr. Robert Hall to be precise, who was then curator of anthropology of the Illinois State Museum. A new museum building was going to be built at Dickson Mounds. The project made necessary a “rescue dig” that would give archaeologists a chance to salvage any artifacts that might be buried there; on an archaeological site, “construction crew” is a misnomer.
One wing of the new building was intended to house the skeletal remains of 234 Native Americans, which had lain exposed in a makeshift museum since the late 1920s. Later I was to learn that digging up Indian graves so that a museum could be built to preserve other Indian graves was one of the smaller absurdities in the relationship between the Illinois of today and its Native American past.
I quickly soured on a career as a ditchdigger for Science, but I went back to Dickson Mounds many times as a tourist. The burial wing of the new museum has been carefully built around the partly excavated mound that gives the place its name: the mound looks just as it did when it was exposed nearly 70 years ago. Instead of an earthen cover, the place is now sheltered by a tall-ceilinged, bare-walled room that’s more storeroom than sanctum in design, if not ambience.
On one side of the room is a platform that affords a view into the burial pit; from its railing one can see a thousand years into the past. The excavation has left a sunken rectangle within which are crammed thousands of bones. Dozens of skeletons are thus arrayed, most of them intact and in still-uninterrupted repose, while others lie in a bargain-basement jumble, their sleep disturbed by tree roots or burrowing animals or, later, grave robbers. The pots and hunting tools and other goods buried with them give even an untrained eye hints about status and occupation and immediately convey the sense that, for all its strangeness, one is in the presence of a human community.
Slides are projected onto the blank wall opposite the viewing platform every half hour or so. They produce pallid images, like a drive-in movie at dusk, of what the countryside looked like back then, snapshots of the diggers who unearthed the graves in the 1920s, drawings that show what their houses looked like. Close-ups of individual graves appear on the wall as the graves themselves are highlighted by spotlights–a voice-over describes the baby that died before its first birthday, the old woman who suffered so from arthritis, the fisherman whose corpse was decorated with bone hooks. I always left thinking it a privilege to have met them. It never occurred to me to inquire whether they felt the same about me.
On November 25 of last year–three days before Thanksgiving–Governor Jim Edgar ordered the Dickson Mounds burial display closed, 15 months after Jim Thompson had ordered it left open. Sometime next spring the bones will be preserved where they now lie, with attendant ceremony, in a limestone vault covered with dirt. The vault will preserve the scientific sanctity of the remains, although their cultural sanctity will be compromised by what amounts to a white man’s tomb.
Edgar’s decision exorcised some political ghosts, but other and larger issues were not laid to rest. What is the nature of kinship? What does science owe religion? What do mainstream cultures owe their ethnic minorities?
“Who were they?” is a question always asked by visitors to the Dickson Mounds. Now the bones demand, “Who are we?”
A thousand years ago the Illinois River valley below Peoria was an ideal human habitat. Five miles wide in places, the valley was home to a succession of prehistoric peoples in a series of town centers scattered up and down its 100 miles. Remnants of this extensive and long-lived occupation are everywhere, and nowhere richer than in Fulton County: by 1980 archaeologists had found evidence of roughly 3,000 village and burial sites there. Together these sites represent all the known eras of Indian culture in Illinois, and were the reason that such pioneer investigators as Thorne Deuel and Fay-Cooper Cole of the University of Chicago came there to dig in the 1930s, producing work that some say set the standard for North American archaeology of the time.
Especially well represented by the sites are the so-called Spoon River people, who throve from roughly 1050 AD to 1450 AD. Their ways are generally reckoned to be a variant of the Middle Mississippian culture that earlier had produced Cahokia, a ceremonial and trading center 120 miles to the south that at its peak was home to some 40,000 people.
For much of those four centuries, residents of Spoon River villages buried their dead atop a 90-foot bluff that overlooks the Illinois some three miles southeast of what is now Lewistown, the county seat. Several cemeteries were dug directly into the original hillside, with others added on top of them; over time these agglomerated into a roughly crescent-shaped mound covering more than 18,000 square feet, thought to have contained the remains of as many as 3,000 individuals.
The bluff was destined for an archaeological treasure house, composed as it is of well-drained and nonacidic glacial soils. White settlers recognized the mounds as human in origin, but the burial complex was not explored (or “vandalized, ” depending on your point of view) until after the Civil War, when a Kentucky farmer named Dickson found bones while clearing the site for a new orchard.
The farm and its treasures were passed on to son Don Dickson. The younger Dickson was no scavenger of graves, no mere pot hunter. A chiropractor, his lust was for science–at least science as he understood it. In the 1920s, Don Dickson and family members systematically excavated a 30-by-60-foot pit, exposing more than 90 graves that contained the remains of at least 248 individuals. (They may have removed some skeletons in upper soil layers, to expose others below them.) Don Dickson left the burials pretty much the way he found them, protecting them from the weather first with a hog shed, then with lean-tos and tarps, and finally with a leaky-roofed “museum.”
The Dicksons unearthed only a fraction of the mound; in 1966-68 more systematic excavations by the state uncovered another 800 or so burials. Michael Wiant, chairman of the Illinois State Museum’s anthropology section, explains that “Dickson Mounds is a scientifically significant site because it’s one of the few large-scale cemeteries in the midst of villages that are contemporaneous.” Thus people’s diets–as evidenced by the villages’ cooking pits, refuse dumps, and so on–can be compared to their health, as revealed by the size, growth rates, and other qualities of their bones. The Dickson Mounds dead also provide a base of data against which populations of other eras and places can be compared: some 76 major studies of the bones have been made.
The Dicksons ran their private museum with a decorum that was exemplary by local standards. (The elder Dickson had reburied any human bones he found while working his land, while many of his neighbors simply tossed them aside as litter.) The museum remained in Dickson family hands until 1954, when the state of Illinois bought it. The new museum building that opened in 1972 was specially designed to enclose the original excavation.
Judith Franke has been the director of the Dickson Mounds Museum for the last 11 years. She recalls that though the publicity surrounding the opening of the new building in 1972 stirred some complaints about the seemliness of the burial display, eventually they died away. “We went back into our obscurity,” she says. Between 1972 and 1990, only about a half dozen of the visitors surveyed complained that the exhibit was inappropriate.
But two or three years ago, Franke says, “Things began heating up.” Native Americans had begun formally protesting the appropriation and display of Indian remains and artifacts by museums from Wisconsin to Oklahoma. (In 1987 an attempt to expand a Quebec municipal golf course onto a Mohawk burial ground led to armed violence between that tribe and the Canadian army.) By 1990 most states had passed laws requiring the repatriation of remains to known modern descendants, and 18 states encouraged or required their reburial; under the prodding of such new laws, standard museum practice regarding the display of human remains began to change.
The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, for example, concluded that if the display of aboriginal human remains is not disrespectful of the dead, it is disrespectful of some among the living. The Smithsonian amended its own policies so that Indian remains would be removed from public display, and in some cases returned to modern descendants. Last summer Chicago’s Field Museum returned to representatives of the Montana Blackfeet the remains of 35 Blackfeet Indians stolen from a reservation in the 1890s.
Such gestures are evidence as much of museums’ political as of their ethical sensitivities. The Field Museum, like the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, has made no move to withdraw from public view its popular Egyptian mummies, and indeed both institutions lobbied in Springfield against the bill that would have banned such displays.
Though no formal Indian protest had been filed against the Illinois State Museum, a significant faction of the state’s anthropological community had always complained that the exhibit at its Dickson Mounds branch was more sideshow than science. From the day the state acquired it, there were complaints about a museum built–literally–around a display that perhaps reminded archaeologists a little too vividly of the dubious origins of their discipline.
Besides, the main reason people came to Dickson Mounds–to see the bones–was also the reason more people didn’t come; Indian communities’ sensitivity to promotions based even in part on the display of Indian remains has kept the museum from advertising locally or nationally in recent years. “We were trying to stay out of trouble,” says one staffer. In 1989 Dickson Mounds drew only 80,000 people (which may be fewer than used to apply to Thompson for a job in one year). Almost 4 million people visit the Museum of Science and Industry annually.
Closing the burial wing was also a preemptive legal maneuver. Federal statutes like the Indian Freedom of Religion Act of 1978 do not explicitly ban displays of Indian remains but might provide the hook for annoying lawsuits challenging them. Some museum administrators and scientific staff concede privately that the potential for costly litigation and bad PR intimidated some of their colleagues. Museum officials, remembering what the General Assembly did to the School of the Art Institute after the flag flap of 1990, may have decided that discretion is the better part of public administration.
Of course, conscience too plays a part, even in science. No doubt state museum officials thought that the state of Illinois, having exploited the Indian in life, should have no part in exploiting him in death. Still, the closing was one more instance of white people deciding what red people want.
Until the ruckus about the Dickson Mounds bone room two years ago, the only time Jim Thompson worried about dead spirits was when the champagne at the mansion went flat. Two years ago he was informed as the museum’s titular boss of the decision to close the wing, and was as unprepared as anyone for the whoops of protest when news of the closing leaked. Local legislators were angry as much at having been left out of the planning as at the closing itself. At that point a scientific and ethical issue became a political one; thereafter, Thompson spoke–and thought–for the museum.
He immediately suspended the closing, pending his review. That review occupied Thompson during the spring and summer of 1990. The guv made several trips to Dickson Mounds, once taking along daughter Samantha to test the display’s putative educational effects on the untutored (General Assembly members presumably being busy elsewhere). The dispute gave Thompson, a lame duck, the rare chance to decide an issue on its merits rather than on the basis of political expediency. Lack of practice may explain the eight months it took him to make up his mind; in August of 1990 Thompson announced that the bone room would remain open.
The only Indians resident in Fulton County who might have protested Thompson’s museological meddling were dead, and it was some weeks before Indian groups scattered elsewhere in Illinois and the midwest were heard from. Eventually more than half a dozen groups filed protests in letters, speeches, and demonstrations. This loose coalition had no common spokesman and its members differed somewhat in their demands, but all carried the same bill of indictment: that the Dickson Mounds display violated cultural standards, including European ones; that the educational value of the display was nil; that the display was racist in its contempt for Indian sensibilities; that what was good enough for the Smithsonian ought to be good enough for the Illinois State Museum.
The opposition to keeping the bone room open was not universal but it was comprehensive: the American Indian Midwestern Alliance and the Indian Treaty Rights Committee, both based in Chicago; the Quad Cities League of Native Americans, in Moline; Oklahoma’s United Indian Nations; the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council of Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin; the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colorado; and the American Indian Midwest Alliance, in Champaign-Urbana. Significantly, none of the protesting groups represented such historic Illinois Indian nations as the Potawatomi, the Mascoutin, the Kickapoo, and the Sauk, tribes that had all been banished from the state by treaty more than 150 years ago and had broken up.
Beginning in early 1990 Native Americans and their sympathizers staged a series of demonstrations at or near the museum. The most active of the protesters was Michael Haney, representing the United Indian Nations in Oklahoma. On one occasion Haney led a group to the grave site of Don Dickson and conducted a symbolic disinterment. During a four-day vigil in the fall of 1990 Haney reportedly warned visiting schoolkids that they could be the target of spiritual harassment if they entered the burial chamber; several of the young people subsequently refused the tour.
Spiritual harassment is not an offense under Fulton County statutes, but vandalism is. In April 1990, Haney leapt into the burial area and attempted to cover some of the bones with dirt, which led to a minor scuffle with a state cop; no one was arrested, but after that protest groups were barred from the burial room.
Every protest attracts its Haneys–indeed, every protest needs its Haneys. But his antics often detracted from a debate that called for nuance rather than noise, and led some non-Indians to dismiss the Indians’ legitimate grievances. In some parts of the country, especially the southwest and northwest, the white man’s persecutions are still going on. Since the 1970s the traffic in stolen Indian religious artifacts has grown into a lucrative trade worth millions. There is even a macabre market for the mummified bodies of Anasazi children, which are preserved for display in acrylic blocks.
The state of Illinois–named after an Indian nation–is not famous for its responsiveness to Native American concerns, in part because it’s the only midwestern state that does not have an Indian reservation to serve as a political spur to reform. Uptown’s Lee Preston is the only Illinois House member who has a significant number of Native Americans in his district; Preston’s 1991 bill to close the burial display failed even to reach the floor because it was given a rare “no-pass” recommendation by the committee that heard it first.
Nonetheless, editorial columns showed substantial support for the closing among non-Native Americans. Indians aren’t the only tribes that want to rectify history. The closing would restore the dignity of many whites as well as Indians. Some people thought it would be nice to see the Indians win for a change. Even those who argued to keep the wing open did so because they said it enhanced whites’ appreciation of Illinois’ ancient peoples.
The letters columns and talk shows provided an informal poll of whites’ attitudes toward Indians, illustrating how people tend to see outcast cultures in terms of their own preoccupations. During the last century, when the United States was busy trying to wipe Indians off the face of the earth, the idea of the bloodthirsty savage seized the popular imagination. Today, a wasteful generation has enshrined the Indians as the last custodians of the Eden that was Illinois before Europeans despoiled it. (Among the groups to publicly endorse the closing was the state chapter of the Sierra Club.)
The sensitized Left was the most adamant in its pleas to close the display. At one point a delegation of African American children appeared at the museum to make cause with people who–as their college-professor guide explained–shared with them a common oppressor. Advocates of closing did not shrink from playing the victim card. At one point a Sangamon State University professor–an Oklahoman long active in Indian causes–explained that Indians had “had their eyes on” Dickson Mounds for 50 years; he didn’t explain why they hadn’t used their tongues. Eventually a spokesperson for the Indian Treaty Rights Committee explained that, as victims of genocide, they had been afraid to challenge white authorities. This explanation sounds a bit contrived; the worst they might have had to fear from the Thompson administration was having their arms twisted for campaign contributions.
Of course some white people stubbornly refused to feel guilty for the sins committed by their great-great-grandparents. To them, the Indians were just another liberal special-interest group, just another whiny minority. Typical was the reaction of a Mr. Smith in Springfield, who wrote his local paper to ask “My question to all the liberals and cry-babies out there is: Where were you when the Atlanta Braves were in last place last year?”
Sporadic demonstrations continued during the year and a half after Thompson’s initial decision to suspend the museum’s closing order. And in April 1991 two charges were filed with the Illinois Department of Human Relations on behalf of Indian organizations, alleging various infringements of rights by state officials associated with the museum. More important, National Geographic omitted Dickson Mounds from its new map of significant U.S. Indian sites because of the bone problem (as an editor later admitted to a reporter). That slight stung Jim Edgar, who reportedly shrank from a future in which Illinois would be to Native Americans what Mississippi was to African Americans during civil rights days.
The bones had been a side issue in the gubernatorial campaign of 1990, which offered little else of interest beyond the question of which candidate was telling the biggest lies about taxes and budgets. Candidate Neil Hartigan opposed the closing. Jim Edgar likewise said he would be inclined to leave the wing open–a statement widely misinterpreted as a pledge to keep it open. But by late July of 1991, with demonstrations showing no signs of abating, Edgar announced that he was willing to “take another look” at a decision to close it. Haney applauded Edgar’s apparent reversal, but opponents of the closing (especially in western Illinois) accused Edgar of going back on his word.
The man carrying the peace pipe on behalf of Governor Edgar was Al Grosboll, one of his top aides. Grosboll spent much of the summer in separate meetings with representatives of Haney’s United Indian Nations and the American Indian Midwest Alliance from Champaign-Urbana, Fulton County residents, and scientists. Where Thompson had argued ideas, Grosboll sought to balance interests. He looked for a political accommodation, a plan that would stop the protests, protect the state’s ability to conduct scientific research, and maintain the viability of the Dickson Mounds Museum as an institution.
During the summer a compromise was hammered out whose terms were announced Thanksgiving week. The Indians would not be allowed to actually rebury the bones in situ, but they would be allowed to cover them with a natural stone vault. The museum would get a badly needed remodeling, partly an attempt to reorient it from bone show to general-purpose archaeological museum and thus preserve both its scientific and show-biz viability.
Several scientists had realized long before that closing the burial display, and even reburying the bones, would be prudent however much the step might offend their scientific principles. James Brown is a Northwestern University anthropologist who also sits on the Illinois State Museum’s board of directors. “I could accept eventual entombing of the remains in place,” said Brown last spring. “I look upon the loss of the exhibit to science with some regret, but there are sensibilities that have to be respected.”
Some saw Edgar’s artful Dickson Mounds deal as one more Indian treaty that a white government had no intention of honoring. The state may not have the promised $4 million to expand and upgrade the museum. And while Haney claimed the proposal as a victory for his cause, Edgar’s willingness to settle may simply reflect the view that while the larger public thinks the state’s Indian past is interesting, it’s not regarded as important enough to make a big deal about.
The Dickson Mounds dispute was not about religion or science but about cultural–and thus political–legitimacy, a debate argued in terms of religion and science. That gave it at least one too many levels for most casual observers to make sense of. One state legislator from Chicago argued that the dead of Dickson Mounds never intended that their bones be displayed. Perhaps only a Chicago politician would assume that the dead deserve an active role in policy-making.
The bad guys in this melodrama were the businesspeople and state lawmakers from the Fulton County area, where locals were estimated to oppose closing by a ratio of 3 to 1. (In an irony unremarked by the press, one of the leaders of the anticlosing faction was a Lewistown funeral director.) Native Americans eager to demonstrate the varieties of the white man’s condescension toward their kind could hardly find a more apt locale than Fulton County. The Lewistown high school mascot is an Indian, and tomahawk-wielding redskins are painted cartoon-style on the gym floor; rest rooms in local eateries are designated “squaws” and “braves.”
Unlike Chicagoans, many downstaters haven’t learned to keep their bigotries to themselves. That left them vulnerable to Haney’s rhetoric. (He reportedly used words like “Nazis” at a public meeting with Fulton Countians, which at least settled the question of whether only white people are capable of racist stereotyping.) Bill Edley, the Democrat who represents Fulton County in the Illinois House, spoke in subtler but no less pointed terms, talking to reporters about “riding off into the sunset” once the dispute over Dickson Mounds was settled.
Some newspapers played the story as a conflict between tourism and human rights, but in fact there was never much money at stake. Because the museum is within day-trip distance of Peoria, Springfield, Bloomington, and Saint Louis, there is little demand for overnight accommodations. And even with the bone room open, Dickson Mounds is pretty much a dud. Its ambience is grimly educational, and that, combined with its out-of-the-way location, has discouraged most casual tourists. At one point Thompson alleged that there was no tourism industry in Fulton County to support–an opinion that some small-town Rotarians no doubt found sacrilegious.
Chauvinism and affection, not greed, stir the blood of Fulton County. University of Chicago anthropologist Jane Buikstra has noted in a scholarly article that the formally bounded cemeteries and mortuary rituals of North American Indians were expressions of solidarity with their ancestors, and signaled control of local resources or territories. Burials thus had political significance; in a way they were also an assertion of property rights.
To make such claims is a human, not just an Indian trait; the tendency of pioneer-era whites to bury their elites on the crests of hills was also a symbolic expression of local hegemony. What is remarkable is that people can come to feel territorial about dead who are not their own. Non-Indians commonly regard Indian burials as part of their place’s history, even though they are not part of their people’s history. Place and personality can become fused; non-Indians sympathetically adopt the mounds’ dead as “family.”
Thomas Emerson, chief archaeologist with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, recalled these incidents in a recent article in a journal called Death Studies:
Emerson concluded that a sense of place “seems to cross-cut time and ethnic affiliation” when it comes to buried remains, and the Indian presence has certainly insinuated itself into Fulton County life. It should not surprise, of course, that a culture with a relatively short history–the European occupation of Illinois accounts for only one-fiftieth of the human record in this area–would often feel a need to appropriate the history of others. (Think how many of our anthropologists study ancient Indian ways in mock Gothic buildings on imitation English campuses.)
Inescapably, of course, whites’ appropriation of prehistoric graves as local icons extends the conquerors’ hegemony backward in time. Officials of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency confirm that current property owners have been routinely consulted regarding the final disposition of remains unearthed by grave robbers even if the residents weren’t of the same race or ethnic group as the dead, while Indian groups were not consulted even in cases in which they were.
This quite properly offends present-day Indian political sensitivities, but it’s less clear that it offends all Indian religions. Some Western tribes believe that all people placed by the Creator in a particular area are “related.” Seen that way, the Indians of ancient Fulton County were placed there by the same god that later chose to place whites there, too. The Lewistown Rotary Club thus would be closer kin to the Dickson Mounds dead–and thus have a greater right to speak for them–than anyone, red or white, from Oklahoma or even Chicago.
When Thompson announced his decision to leave the Dickson Mounds burial display open, he insisted that the bones were part of Illinois’ story, not just part of the American Indians’ story. This is a scientific as well as a rhetorical convention. When Buikstra lectured in Amsterdam in 1988, she claimed Illinois’ prehistoric people as ancestors, culturally speaking; when Stuart Streuver, the controversial Northwestern University archaeologist, published a book in 1979 about his excavations in the lower Illinois valley, he subtitled it “Americans in Search of Their Prehistoric Past.”
Anthropologists try, usually futilely, to explain that their research into Indians is neither racist nor ethnocentric, that similar research is going on in places like Turkey and Peru, that the goal in all cases is to reconstruct what the scientists see as a generically human past. The Indians of Illinois went through phases that the ancestors of every European people went through in other places and times: forming towns, adopting new technologies, vying for political influence, etc. These are universal preoccupations, and thus how one people reacts to them has some relevance for every other people.
However, the commonality of human experience is unfashionable at the moment; the trend is toward tribalism rather than cross-cultural connectedness. Stressing the kinship between Europeans and Indians–for a long time the essence of liberal orthodoxy regarding the red man–strikes some Indians as destructive of their Indian-ness.
Nonetheless, says Northwestern professor James Brown, “This history is not just theirs.” After only a couple of hundred years, Illinois’ Indian and European cultures are hard to pry apart. Anthropologists do not distinguish between the Indian and European stages in Illinois history, which they array on a continuum that begins with the end of the Paleo-Indian stage, some 10,000 years ago, and ends with the Early Industrial stage in 1920.
If the nature of spirituality was the crux of the debate over the bone display, then the nature of kinship lay at the heart of the debate over their disposition. In the powwow for the press he staged in Lewistown in August of 1990, Governor Thompson argued that the bones are orphans, that the Dickson Mounds dead are not provably the direct ancestors of any Indians now living, and that the experience of ancient Native Americans, to the extent it has been revealed and absorbed by the descendants of later European arrivals, has become part of Illinois culture–and thus no longer the sole patrimony of any one culture.
The direct descendants of the banished Illinois tribes are thought to have died out in Oklahoma decades ago. The “nations” that comprised the historic Indian populations of Illinois numbered only a few thousand seminomads when the Europeans arrived in the 18th century, and subsequently they suffered a depletion brought on by loss of game, white men’s sicknesses, booze, and the losses suffered at the hands of militarily more adept tribes. By 1833 their numbers had dwindled to possibly as few as 600, and they ceded the last of their lands to the U.S. government under terms of the Treaty of Chicago and moved west, across the Mississippi.
A few of the historic Illinois are assumed to have stayed in the area after the 1830s, but as their continued residence must have required a denial of their Indian heritage, it’s hard to imagine how their descendants might be traced. Still, James Yellowbank of the Indian Treaty Rights Organization, speaking in Springfield, said “It is preposterous to assume there are no living relatives of these people.” At any rate, the law insists that even the preposterous be proven.
Whether the blood of the historic Illinois nations still flows, and in whom, is only the first of the mysteries that attend the bones at Dickson Mounds. The Native American peoples who greeted white explorers in the 17th century were not the direct descendants of the Mississippians, of whom the Spoon River culture was a part–they last dwelt here in the 14th century. The actual Dickson Mounds builders disappeared, at least from the artifactual record. Robert Hall, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, writes that no sites have yet been found that prove whether the ancient Mississippians “just ceased to be” or moved south and survived among the Muskogean or Siouan tribes there, or survived in the persons of the Siouans and Algonquians who are thought to have arrived in the region from the east not very much before Marquette and Jolliet.
Claims of relationship based on cultural kinship are tantalizing but inconclusive. The early Indians traded over continental distances, but it would be as dubious to conclude that the Mississippians were close biological kin to Lake Superior peoples because both possessed iron beads as it would be to assume that we are kin to the Japanese because we own Japanese VCRs.
Researchers have looked for years for patterns to explain the mystery of the Mississippians’ disappearance. Early investigators who noted the marked degradation in crafts and economy that followed the Mississippian era assumed that the region had been visited by some great catastrophe–invasion or famine or pestilence, perhaps. Newer research has forced the abandonment of such lurid explanations in favor of scenarios of internal decline. Buikstra has compared certain details of excavated skulls and concluded that the lower Illinois valley was inhabited by people sharing a common descent continuously for 9,000 years.
Human genes can establish an even more unassailable pedigree than physiognomic peculiarities. In 1985 California scientists patented a process known as the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR; it enables researchers to clone certain genetic material from ancient sources, such as bone fragments, to provide enough DNA to conduct gene tracking and other tests. PCR enabled a Berkeley geneticist to conclude that all modern humans are descended from a single population living in Africa 200,000 years ago; other researchers concluded after studying a corpse preserved in Florida peat for some 7,000 years that all Native Americans (except the Aleuts, the Navajo, and the Apache) are related to each other.
The technique remains controversial, but the implications of gene tracking for anthropology are profound. Says the Illinois State Museum’s Wiant, “While it is certainly premature to say that this technique will irrefutably establish the genealogical relationship of Dickson Mounds peoples, it gives rise to cautious optimism.”
The recently passed federal Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act is the legislative version of the Smithsonian policy, worked out in the autumn of 1990 by representatives of the American Association of Museums and the Native American Rights Fund. The new law applies to all museums that receive federal money, and obliges them to return historic remains that can be linked to officially recognized Indian groups presenting a “preponderance of evidence” proving affiliation. (A review committee with a Native American majority will decide disputed cases).
But the Dickson Mounds remains are prehistoric, about a thousand years old. Thompson in 1990 insisted that unless and until kinship to living tribes could be established, any claim of a right to decide their disposition had no standing. Still, Haney has made such a claim from the start, demanding that if the Dickson Mounds bones were not to be buried in situ they should be handed over to him for reburial in consecrated ground in Oklahoma.
Jonathan Haas, the Field Museum’s vice president for collections and research, helped negotiate the terms of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act. That law does not require the repatriation of unaffiliated prehistoric remains, mainly because affiliation of materials so old is at present almost impossible to prove. “Today there are half a dozen Apache groups,” Haas explains. “In 1600 the Apache and the Navajo were all one group, the Southern Athapascans, who were indistinguishable from each other physically or linguistically. If you go back another 300 years, there are only the Athapascans, which included not only the Navajo and Apache but Indians in southern and western Canada as well. None of today’s groups can speak for such remains unless all the descended groups speak with one voice, which is unlikely.”
Kinship is a political as much as a scientific concept. Science can tell us whether population X is related to population Y; only politics tell whether that relationship is significant. To use pan-Indian arguments in support of kinship claims seems to suggest that one Indian is the same as any other Indian–a doctrine that would be denounced as racist if it were uttered by a white man. Wiant notes, “If you interview a Peoria and a Choctaw and a Kickapoo, you’ll find that they are different.”
Often the question confronting well-meaning policymakers is not whether to consult Indians about burial issues but which ones to ask. Especially in the midwest, opposition to museum practice regarding remains has been led by Indian coalitions whose factions don’t always get along. Ohio is only one state in which different Native American groups have made rival claims to the remains and artifacts of ancient peoples whose relationship to today’s tribes is problematic.
Even genetic evidence of kinship would not fully answer questions about the ownership of remains. Haney used the Florida corpse to assert a claim to the Dickson Mounds dead on the basis that all non-Aleut, non-Apache, and non-Navajo Indians are related. If they are, however, the Asian origins of Native Americans would require that the state of Illinois grant standing in the Dickson Mounds debate to modern Lapps and Mongols.
The kinship controversy reaches beyond the Dickson Mounds bone room. The storerooms of Illinois museums and universities are crammed with thousands and thousands of bones acquired through past excavations, remains that are crucial for research. (The bones on display in the bone room comprise only a fraction of the Dickson Mounds Museum collection, which numbers 600,000 bones.) So when Edgar’s negotiators sat down with Indian representatives, they carried a message from the governor: only the bones in the Dickson Mounds burial display were on the table. No deal would be struck that involved any other collection, including the Dickson Mounds bones not currently displayed, which are still available to scientists.
Much talk has been heard of replacing the reburied originals with exact replicas cast in plastic. This solves the social problem but creates scientific ones. It is possible to make casts accurate enough to retain the marks of violence or disease that researchers find so valuable, but such a project would take a lot of money. And plastic replicas are not only costly but often unsuitable for research. Original material can be subjected to X-ray and chemical analyses that can’t be performed on a model. And because new analytic techniques are continually being discovered, continued access to genuine artifacts is essential. It was to preserve these research possibilities that Edgar insisted that the Dickson Mounds bones not be covered by soil but entombed.
As a result of the new federal repatriation act, museums expect to lose a certain amount of their collections. But historic remains constitute only a small part of most of them, and not all of those remains will be linkable to one surviving tribe; in other cases, tribes may not want the bones back for religious reasons. The Smithsonian expects to lose about 5 to 10 percent of its collection of 18,000 skeletal remains and nearly that number of objects in the first few years; spokesmen for the Field Museum say a similar portion of its collection may change hands.
Haas declines to comment on the Dickson Mounds case but notes that the Field Museum is “concerned” that the new federal law generally gives standing in repatriation disputes not only to officially recognized tribes but to ad hoc Indian groups. Lawrence Conrad, director of Western Illinois University’s Archaeological Research Lab, has blasted Edgar’s compromise on just such grounds. Conrad argues in effect that these particular Indian claimants have no more inherent right to a say about these bones than do the Zulu or the Sons of Canute, and that what the governor called “respect” is in fact a craven political gesture to quiet noisy and embarrassing special pleaders. Al Grosboll replies that the deal was a political, not a legal agreement. But, as Edgar’s own reversal of Thompson’s 1990 order showed, the political agreements of one administration are not binding on the next.
The problems posed by the bone display are subtle, and finding solutions has not been helped by objectors who tend to lump anthropologists with Braves fans and Christopher Columbus. While most whites do not object to the archaeological treatment of bones (archaeological remains tend to be treated with the care and reverence usually reserved for religious objects), some Indians see archaeology as a more systematic form of grave robbing. Early archaeologists “discovered” unknown cultures the way Columbus discovered the “unknown” North American continent. It was 19th-century anthropologists who pronounced Indian culture primitive and thus deserving of “improvement,” including obliteration.
However, a lot of Westerners are confused by and fearful of science, too; as one anthropologist laments, “Science is not terribly popular at the moment.” For one thing, it confounds the consoling simplicities that have sustained the current fashionable romanticism about the Indian. The New Yorker’s Verlyn Klinkenborg writes that pre-Columbian America is our notion of the Garden of Eden, remaining the source of whatever innocence Americans still claim for themselves.
The reality is that there was little that was Edenic about early Illinois. The Europeans were only the last in a long line of tribes that displaced successive indigenous peoples in this area. The people known to anthropologists as the Baumerians, for example, probably exterminated the Terminal Archaic people resident in Illinois some 2,500 years ago. (“Exterminated” is used in a cultural sense, to mean that characteristic pottery styles or forms of social organization disappeared as people adopted newcomers’ ways.)
The origins of the Spoon River culture have been traced to the arrival in the central Illinois valley in about 1050 AD of people of the Middle Mississippian culture from the “American Bottom” near Saint Louis. The newcomers encountered indigenous Late Woodland people, a relatively simple people organized into mobile egalitarian bands. The Middle Mississippians brought with them new ceramics techniques and advanced knowledge of maize culture. According to Lawrence Conrad, they also introduced complex new religious ideas relying on “theologically based coercive force.” The conquest was peaceful, possibly even welcomed by the less sophisticated native culture. In any event, Conrad writes, “The Mississippians and the indigenes were soon integrated into a single society ruled by a semidivine lineage.”
Why the Mississippians came to the central Illinois valley remains a topic of intense debate among anthropologists. Had they come as warriors? Colonists? Traders? Perhaps the most persuasive theory (argued by the IHPA’s chief archaeologist Thomas Emerson) is that these migrants were political refugees from the central town of Cahokia, ousted after dominant chiefs consolidated power there. Emerson theorizes that the refugees settled on various upriver sites that resembled Cahokia’s setting on the American Bottom but were safely distant from that town; having turned their backs on the American Bottom, they evolved their own Mississippian subcultures, which quickly came to have more in common with each other than with Cahokia. The archaeological record is filled with similar instances, in which people of one place borrowed from people of another, through trade or intermarriage (pot-making skills traveled with women from one tribe to another).
But science does sometimes confirm hated stereotypes ruled inappropriate politically. Michael Wiant recently analyzed artifacts from two Fulton County sites occupied during the Oneota period, which succeeded the Mississippian occupation. The bones reveal what Wiant calls an “alarming incidence” of death by violence–arrowheads stuck in bones, major trauma to skulls caused by blows from stone celts, and evidence of scalping and dismemberment. White people didn’t invent barbarity, however much more efficient they may have made it.
Contrary to the image nurtured by sentimentalists of all races, at times prehistoric Illinois societies allocated privilege by gender or class. (The children of Mississippian elites, for instance, were taller and healthier than other children, presumably because they had better diets.) Maize horticulture caused the sort of ill health–tooth decay, among other things–in Indian societies found in all sedentary peoples dependent on starchy food, including our own.
Nor were aboriginal peoples necessarily wise stewards of the land. They were merely less efficient at exploiting it than modern Europeans, because of primitive technologies and social organization and their smaller populations. Once the peoples of the Mississippian culture achieved higher levels of social and technological organization, their effect on the land was apparently as grim as that of any European despoiler, exhausting local timber, game, and soils.
In what Europeans and their descendants call the old days, stone arrowheads were as common in Fulton County as litter in a Chicago park; there are still locals who remember when spring plowing turned up so many bones that the fields looked as if they’d been dusted with snow. At the turn of the century prehistoric pots were looted and hauled away from Dickson Mounds and other burial sites by the wagon load. The same was true throughout Illinois; of the 29,000 sites identified in greater Chicago, nearly 11,000 have been destroyed.
Both state and federal laws now require permits to excavate archaeological sites even on private land; this is to prevent pot hunting and thus preserve the scientific (if not the religious) integrity of aboriginal graves. But some anthropologists worry that the permit process will expose permit granters to political pressure. Wiant worries that Native American protests could block excavation by responsible scientists as well as pot hunters.
So a combination of political vulnerability and economic pressure threatens to effectively ban–for the time being at least–mortuary archaeology in Illinois. Since 1984 the state has banned the excavation of burials on state-owned land even for purely research purposes. If the state were to acquire Dickson Mounds today, it would have to be left untouched–and all that has been learned there in the last 40 years would remain unknown.
The only work being funded is “rescue” digs, such as those required in advance of federal road construction. Because mortuary work is being restricted to sites threatened by construction, highway planners and shopping-center developers are essentially setting the scientific agenda, but you couldn’t get funding for a genuine burial dig these days anyway. As one Springfield official admits, “It’s too hot an issue politically.”
Still, while one arm of the governor’s office was negotiating this fall with Indians to close the Dickson Mounds burials, another was closing a deal to buy 130 acres on the Illinois River near Ottawa and thus preserve the site of a large Indian village known to have been occupied some 1,300 years before the Europeans arrived. But state spokesmen were careful to say that any archaeology done there will concentrate on nonburial sites in the hope of obtaining what a spokesman called a “very clear picture of what life was like for the Indians before and after contact with the Europeans.”
This hands-off policy toward burial sites has not exactly devastated the Illinois anthropological community. Students of prehistoric Illinois archaeology can learn much from the excavation of hunting camps, rubbish pits, house sites, and other nonburial sites. The image of the grave robber is one that professional archaeologists have been trying to shed for years anyway.
But burials do offer unique insights, and not only into burial customs. In addition to the information on population demographics and health that bones offer, there is a great deal of knowledge to be attained about the caste structure, gender relationships, even theology in the number and kind of burial furniture interred and the orientation of corpses. So the question remains: Are the present restrictions on mortuary research a wise accommodation to what Ellsworth Brown calls a “higher human order,” or a craven step toward a new Dark Ages?
It’s not only Native Americans who would still the shovels. The Homebuilders Association of Illinois opposed a 1990 state law that required virtually any new construction project on virgin land to have a permit reviewed by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. The requirements were not exactly onerous; reviews of housing projects reportedly were finished in 17 days on average, and led to project-delaying site inspections in only 5 percent of the cases. Nevertheless, the home builders lobbied hard for a new version, passed this year, that greatly reduced the number of sites that would require permit reviews.
Ironically archaeologists in Illinois and elsewhere sought more vigorously than any other group to end the looting of Native American grave sites–an effort to save what was left. In fact a great many Native Americans support archaeological investigation, Wiant notes, as the only means of remedying their people’s historic invisibility; Indians are frequent users of the Smithsonian’s data.
One must sympathize with Native Americans who complain that their young someday will have to go to the museum to learn how to build a sweat lodge. But the alternative may be not knowing how to build one at all. (The first Europeans to arrive in the southeast found that the Cherokee then living there did not know why their own ancestors had built mounds.) Forgetting may be the truest form of disrespect being shown the Indian in Illinois.
Jim Thompson essentially wrote a lawyer’s brief for keeping the burial wing open. He grasped the legal and historiographic issues raised by the display, but he misunderstood or chose to ignore the emotional ones. At issue was not so much how such remains are shown but how they are seen. The burials at Dickson Mounds are simultaneously an artifact, a midden, and an anthropological text. Which of the three you see when you go there depends a lot on who you are; sacrilege, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
For example, there’s a level at which the museum–not the displays within it but the fact of the museum itself–must offend. If Umberto Eco is correct that cultural anthropology is “the bad conscience of the white man who thus pays his debt to the destroyed primitive cultures,” then the anthropological museum must be understood at least partly as a gesture of expiation, a plea for absolution. It’s hard to escape the sensation that the burial display–housed in a high-ceilinged room, dimly lit and hushed–is a sort of altar at which we worship what we’ve destroyed. Of course our appropriation has stripped these objects of any real sanctity.
When the state-museum brass first made the decision to close two years ago, they planned to simply shut off the burial wing from public view but leave the burials exposed for the use of scientists. The plan drew a distinction between public display and scholarly display that did not impress then- governor Thompson, who objected on egalitarian grounds. As he put it to Springfield’s State Journal-Register in May of 1990, “The fancy professors would get in there to ogle the remains, but ordinary folks won’t.”
Thompson argued that the educational value of the display, to both scientists and laypeople, outweighed any intended or imagined insult caused by the manner of the display. Representative Lee Preston invoked the same principle in his bill, which would have exempted scientific and educational uses of human parts from the list of proscribed uses.
At one time watching a man hang was also thought to be educational. The committee hearing Preston’s bill in Springfield was told by University of Chicago anthropologist Raymond Fogerson that the display teaches nothing, that what the typical tourist sees there is unredeemed by insight. The burial, Fogerson said, was “obscene pornography” (which people on all sides of the controversy can agree is the very worst kind). Others likened it to a sideshow or worse, while the Tribune argued against the display because it lacked “tastefulness.”
It was asserted that the sight of the bones distracts visitors from the real lesson of the Dickson Mounds–if it doesn’t contradict it outright. Indians and anthropologists both wish to convey that these were a people capable of sophisticated crafts, intercontinental trade networks, and complex ceremonial systems. At about the time that civilized Europeans were burning nonbelievers at the stake, for example, Spoon River people practiced their own religion with the symbolic severing of limbs from certain corpses.
Which must gratify those visitors to the burial room who like their history raw. Unfortunately the graphics and dioramas and artifact displays preferred by the already educated hold little interest for the ignorant. So for several months now museum staff have been converting the museum from what Fogerson derisively called a “bone show” into a museum of regional culture and history. This summer, for example, visitors were offered the chance to view the results of work at the nearby Morton Site, where once stood a 40-acre mound town, and to study a display titled “The Illinois Country, 1673-1846” that focuses on the French colonial period and historic Indians. Such changes did not bring a huge influx of tour buses, however.
One question Thompson took up that Edgar did not is central to any museum’s purpose: the ways in which people learn. Letter writer Carrie Hageman, a self-described child- development and museum professional, complained to the Trib that to call the burials educational is “preposterous” because they are adorned with “no signage, audio, photographs, contextual material or explanation”–the whizbang paraphernalia of media-minded educationalists. The assumption is that what matters is not the artifact itself but what the museum professionals tell us about it.
Under the terms of Edgar’s compromise, the bones will be removed from sight by the new concrete vault installed over the pit, the vault will be covered with earth, presumably satisfying the religious requirements of reinterment, and the burial room will remain open to visitors. No doubt the redone space will be crammed with signage and audios and contextual materials and photos. The plan is to replace the bone show with dioramas, which are among the less boring of pedagogical frauds: dioramas can be more “real” than actual archaeological remains, since they can depict the houses, tools, even the people of the Spoon River valley in plaster versions. But while museum professionals may find dioramas less boring than the old display cases, visitors–especially kids–may be more apt to compare them to TV and find them dull. It sounds as if the new Dickson Mounds Museum will be just like school–very educational, very polite, and very dead.
One thing about the bone show, though–it’s the truth. After lifetimes of seeing movie Indians played by Jews and Italians and wooden Indians in cigar stores and contemporary Indians who disobligingly dress like cowboys or truck drivers, at Dickson Mounds people saw their first real Indians. And as a museum employee told a Springfield reporter on the day of Edgar’s announcement: Six Flags and Disneyworld may be filled with marvelous things, but none of them are real. Visitors to the burial room, however, the staffer said, are startled to find that “This is what we are.”
Implicit in Thompson’s brief for an open display was the notion that without curiosity there is no real learning; and in the case of the Spoon River people, there is no curiosity without the bones. Many opponents of an open display argued for replacing the real bones with precise casts of plaster or plastic, but it’s not clear that preserving the mere appearance of the original burials would preserve their power to move.
A high school friend now living in Wisconsin wrote me some months ago. She had studied anthropology in college in the southwest, and recalled that “seeing [the Dickson Mounds Museum] inspired me to study archaeology in the first place.” She is not alone. Alan Harn, research coordinator of anthropology at Dickson Mounds, is a Fulton County native whose youthful infatuation with the place led him to devote his career to understanding it. William Sumner, director of the Oriental Institute in Hyde Park, told lawmakers in Springfield that confronting the mortal remains of an actual individual “opens the mind,” and “inspires a stirring recognition of how the past is continuous with the present.” He added, “Many professional and avocational scholars owe their lifelong interest in the ancient world to just such an encounter.”
My own experience has been that the lesson most visitors draw from the graves is not the vanity of Man but the humanness of the Indian. I recall my first sight of the Dickson Mounds burials, more than 20 years ago. I had seen plenty of Indian artifacts before, in conventional museums. Rather than establish a kinship, all those stone axes and beaded garb merely confirmed my sense that their authors were backward and impossibly distant from late-20th-century technological sophisticates like myself. My house may be manifestly superior in every way to their houses, but looking at the Dickson Mounds dead I saw that their bones are my bones. They look no different in their graves than I will look in mine. The vestiges of ceremony still visible speak of sentiments common to anyone who knows what it is to love and respect other humans. Speaking for myself–a deracinated sixth-generation German American–the graves made these people truly human for the first time.
None of this, I realize, relieves the exhibit of taint. Modern Native Americans are not much concerned with how educated whites learn about life or choose their careers–though the testimonials of various archaeologists suggest that any imputation of ridicule or racism is exaggerated, if not imagined. The dismaying fact that it takes something like a Dickson Mounds to remind white people that Indians are human too should be blamed on the living, not the dead.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marlin Ross, courtesy Illinois State Museum.