More than three hundred years ago Native American burials were already being desecrated by the non-Indians. These same non-Indians felt very strongly about any desecration of their own non-Indian burials, and any even accidental disturbances were considered outrageous and laws were then developed to protect the graves of the non-Indians. But contrary to this outrage and even in the face of those laws, Indian burials were treated as "scientific material" and Indian remains were unearthed with enthusiasm and the frenzy of a major scientific break through.
The U.S. federal government created laws to guarantee that all individuals of our country have an appropriate burial. Laws to protect the deceased from grave robbers, laws to protect against the mutilation of dead bodies, and even laws to protect against the vandalism of tombstones. In these laws there is no wording to exclude Native Americans from their protection. Yet each and every one of these laws have been constantly broken and ignored in exactly the same ways as our treaties. In direct violation of these laws, Indian graves are dug up, bones of the dead are sent to universities for students to handle and fondle, while funerary objects are sold on Ebay to the highest bidder.
Burial practices vary from one Tribal Nation to another, but in every single one the dead are always treated with the utmost respect. There are burial mounds throughout the country and many remains are interred in simple individual graves, some possess a small house for a covering. Any disturbance of a burial is one of the most shameful and worst crimes that could be committed within Traditional Law.
Samual Morton was a physician in the 1800's who studied physical features of humans. Morton accumulated thousands of skulls, most of them Native American. He measured them to furnish documentation for his theory that Indians and blacks were of a lower rank than the white race. Morton's hypothesis was used to advocate the implication that Indians were the vanishing race. This was just the documentation the U. S. Government needed to endorse their actions of genocide in polices toward Native Americans during that era. The polices that were established vindicated the racist beliefs and vulgar type of studies against Indian tribes. This injustice would continue for years to come. One of the polices that became law was the collecting of Indian remains. At this time orders were given to the army to seize Native American human remains or as they call them "Indian specimens" from graves and battlefields. The army field doctors turned the remains over to the Army Medical Museum in Washington DC for subsequent analysis. At this time there was a deal made between the Army Medical Museum curator, George A. Ottis and the Smithsonian Institution. The Army Museum would receive the human remains and the Smithsonian would get the burial and cultural items. In 1868, they published want ads in newspapers for "crania." This started the inhumane practice of decapitating Native Americans. The brains were measured, weighed, and then shipped as cargo to Washington, DC. The crania were scraped off of battle fields, massacre fields, prisons, boarding schools, and burial grounds. This includes every type of Native American burial, even very fresh graves right after the families had left. Some notorious practices were started such as the displays of body parts including; heads, reproductive organs, and fetuses. Some remains were made into jewelry, wall hangings, trophies or scalp lock dolls, while other parts were shipped off to Washington DC. The Army Medical anthropologists reached a conclusion that "American Indians must be assigned a lower position in the human scale than has been believed heretofore."
During the 1800's, Natural History Museums were founded around the country and they had a big interest in Indian burials. They actually believed in Samuel Morton's theory of the vanishing race, and subsequently quickly collected mass amounts of Native American skeletons and funerary objects that were buried with the bodies. The remains were stock piled in huge numbers in the Museums' storage units. You can read that last sentence as "cardboard boxes in the basement."
The following excerpt is from the book "Battlefields and Burial Grounds; The Indian Struggle to Protect Ancestral Graves in the United States" by Roger C. and Walter R. Echo-Hawk. Please use discretion before reading the next quotation--it may be very disturbing--however, the facts must be known.
"Some museums employed outright deception to obtain skeletons. In a cruel hoax, New York's American Museum of Natural History staged a fake funeral for a deceased Eskimo in order to deceive the man's young son. Qisuk and his son, Minik, were among a group of Eskimos from Greenland who accompanied Arctic explorer Robert Peary to New York City in 1897. While in New York, Qisuk fell ill and died. Doctors at a medical college dissected Qisuk's body and removed his brain for future study. His remains were then taken to a bone house and boiled to remove the flesh from the bones. Staff members of the American Museum of Natural History designed the phony funeral to make Minik believe that his father had been respectfully buried. Qisuk's skeleton ended up in the museum's collection."
The Antiquities Act of 1906 opened the door even wider for scientists and others to legally and candidly desecrate Native American graves. The Antiquities Act did not protect Indian graves and carried a provision that said such remains could never be reburied. This Act of Congress enabled people to make huge monetary gains by showcasing, exhibiting and charging public admission to view Native American remains. This paved the way for grave robbers to dig up and steal funerary objects. Objects are traditionally buried with the deceased and are very personal possessions, highly sacred and respected. For example the objects may be jewelry, pottery, anything that is buried with the individual. The looters even stole the grave markers. To a grave robber this means an easy way to make a lot of money.
In spite of the theories and the genocidal practices, Native Americans never vanished as predicted, and in spite of the inhuman and unjust acts against native people, we have continuously grown stronger and prouder up to the present. Many Tribes continue to speak their own native language, conduct ceremonies, perform traditional music and dance, make traditional art, tell the stories and follow tribal customs. Many tribes started winning court cases all over the country to reinforce existence as sovereign nations. The treaty, property, environmental and political rights were recognized by the U. S. Supreme Court and Congress as a result of the many court cases. This recognition led to the Indian Self-Determination Act which gave Tribes the right to govern their own affairs. The Act initiated a revitalization among Indian Country.
The United States Congress declared a new federal policy to protect Tribal customs and religious freedom for Native Americans, and in 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed into law. An extension of the A.I.R.F.A. policy was developed due to the holocaust that native people have endured for centuries. This extended policy was soon to be N.A.G.P.R.A.
President George Bush signed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act into law on November 16, 1990. "This law establishes procedures and legal standards for the Repatriation of human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and cultural Patrimony by federal agencies and certain museums, educational and other institutions, and state and local governments. Recognizes certain tribal, Native Hawaiian, and individual rights in regards to burial sites located on federal and tribal lands. In general, the Act is based upon the unique relationship between Native Americans and the Federal Government." From: Mending the Circle by the American Indian Ritual Object Repatriation Foundation.
Much of this page is based on an article by David Grignon of the Menominee Historic Preservation Department and the official Menominee N.A.G.P.R.A officer.