Why We Want our Relatives to Stay Buried

Note: I have a better article on this that I will post when I find it. I've edited this article a little, because you can tell that it was written for a specific time and situation. I think the issue is still a concern. Here's the major difference that I see between 1991 and now. In 1991, most non-Indians really didn't get why we would be so upset about the looting of Indian burial grounds and the possession of Indian remains in museums. It took a great deal of composure for some of us to point out that non-Indians in the mainstream wouldn't tolerate that happening to their own ancestors, but some people just didn't get it.

With the increased respect being accorded to Native American cultures, we natives are now concentrating on efforts to gain respect for our dead. Desecration of Native burial grounds has increased these efforts.

Respect for the dead is common to all religions, but it is especially prominent in Native American cultures. Authorities of the past--and some in the present--have condemned Native American religions as "superstitions." Yet, a cursory examination of "pre-historic" burials in Native North America finds the same respect for the dead that presently exists.

Native American respect and reverence for human remains includes all human remains. There is no "statute of limitations" on this respect. Human remains that are thousands of years old are just as holy to us as those buried in the present. For Native Americans, all living beings, past and present, are bound in a dynamic, symbiotic time and life-frame called "the Sacred Hoop," "the Circle of Life," "the Medicine Wheel," or by present-day biologists, "the chain of life."

The "circle of life" includes both the biological and spiritual connections of all living beings. In contrast to Western linear time, this viewpoint includes life (in all its forms) in what Protestant theologian Paul Tillich called "the Eternal Now." In other words, you are not only yourself, but spiritually, you are both your ancestors and your descendants. The improper, ritually incorrect burial or storage of your ancestor may also affect your own spiritual well-being.

Current quantum physics suggests that at the base of existence, everything is in motion. While it is risky to use physics as a basis for theology, it is curious that quantum physicists are saying the same thing as the Lakota medicine men of a hundred years ago. In short, everything is "alive." For us Natives, the taking of a life is cause for concern and the proper ritual, just as it is for non-Indians. The disturbing of human remains (or "life") is unthinkable.

There is ample legal precedent for respect for Native American dead. "The common law dating back to old England says one does not dig up a grave without compelling reason, or permission from the next of kin," says Walter Echohawk, a Native American Rights Fund attorney [1]. In 1991, a hot year for grave-robbing, Kentucky led Alabama, Indiana, and Kansas in closing state-sponsored displays of Native American remains. Kentucky went further in declaring the looting of archaeological sites to be a felony. The Smithsonian Institution and Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History no longer display Indian remains. Yet many public and private museums still hold them, and vandals still loot Native American graveyards [2].

Some argue that the "compelling reason" in scientific research justifies systematic unearthing and storing of Indian remains. But there are other options. Idaho and its Indian nations crafted a plan in 1984. All unearthed graves, regardless of race, would be held by the state for scientific study for one year, after which the remains would be reburied. Contrast this with what has been the usual policy. If a non-Native grave is unearthed, the remains are reburied. If Native remains are uncovered, they are shipped to a museum, and could stay there virtually forever.

Native Americans are few in number, and so appreciate the good will of their non-Native friends. In the spirit of common humanity, and on America's cornerstone of religious freedom, we are appealing to our non-Native friends to allow us to bury our dead, so that their spirits may rest.


1. Chicago Sun-Times, "More Museums Shun Indian Burial Displays," Science and Health Section, January 14, 1990, p. 31.

2. For example, the Abenaki Museum in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains; it is not run by the Abenaki Indians. When I visited, the museum was remarkable for the cross-cultural sensitivity of its exhibits. That is, until I saw the very last exhibit--the publicly displayed remains of an Indian.

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