FBI agents searching an Indiana house in 2014 were shocked to discover a hoard of 2,000 human bones likely stolen from Native American graves. The bureau, which announced the grotesque discovery in February 2019, estimates that the bones represent 500 people. Far from an isolated incident, however, the discovery is only the latest in a long history of Native remains being stolen from their burial sites by collectors and museums.
The theft of Native remains “dates back to colonization of the western hemisphere,” says Shannon Keller O’Loughlin, executive director of the Association on American Indian Affairs and a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. European settlers stole ceremonial burial objects and human remains from Native American graves, and some took body parts like scalps from the Native people they killed.
Many of these human remains stayed in the families that stole them or ended up in museums or other public institutions. The house the FBI raided in Indiana was home to a missionary in his 90s who treated his place like an informal museum. Enslaved Native people who died in Europe also had their remains pillaged abroad. O’Loughlin says Native American remains can be found in institutions in “Germany, France, the U.K., Sweden, Finnland, Spain—our ancestors are everywhere.”
Institutions in the U.S. and Europe were especially interested in acquiring Native human remains during the 19th century in the name of “race science.” This pseudoscience was based on the debunked notion that different races exist on a hierarchy, with white people being superior. One of the most popular versions of this was “phrenology,” the study of skull size to determine intelligence and morality.
“After the Civil War the Surgeon General issued orders to Army medical personnel to collect Native American human remains for study,” writes William Johnson, a Saginaw Chippewa citizen and curator at the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways in Michigan, in an email (Johnson has consulted on the FBI case in Indiana).
“It was believed that cranial capacity would provide insight into Native American personality and intelligence,” he writes. “Native American graves were looted and craniums were collected in the name of science.”
Pillaging in the late 19th and early 20th century was also motivated by the “myth of the vanishing Indian”—i.e., that Native people are historical figures from the past, not modern-day people living in sovereign Native nations. Wealthy white people funded salvage archaeology expeditions because they “believed that Native American people would be an extinct race, and therefore everything needed to be collected by any means necessary,” Johnson writes.
This mandate for white Americans to rob Native graves in the name of science and historic preservation created a huge market for Native human remains. There was even a “type of competition between institutions in the 1800s, in the 1900s, of who had the most,” O’Loughlin says.
Louellyn White, a professor of First Peoples Studies at Concordia University in Montreal and a Mohawk citizen, connects this grave robbing with the long history of genocide against Native peoples. “The theft of land comes with the theft of our bodies and continual dehumanization of Indigenous peoples,” she says. “I think it really ties into these perceptions of Indigenous peoples as less than human.”
But as long as white people have been robbing Native graves, Native people have been fighting back to protect their ancestors.
Native activists won a landmark victory in 1990 with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. This law protects Native human remains on federal and tribal lands and mandates that federal institutions (or institutions that receive federal funding) must repatriate Native remains in their possession.
However, the law doesn’t apply to private “collections” of Native human remains like the one the FBI discovered in Indiana. People who possess Native human remains handed down in their family are not obliged to return them. Yet even for public institutions, O’Loughlin says the act isn’t always successfully enforced. While some federal institutions have repatriated remains, others have avoided doing so through lengthy court battles. In addition, some people still do rob Native graves on protected lands.
“There still is a market in Native American human remains,” O’Loughlin says. “Individuals regularly go into caves and other places on tribal land that should be protected…and steal either objects or remains.”
These people may not be digging up Native graves to prove bizarre ideas about “race science,” but the continuing desecration of Native graves does come from a similar belief that Native people are somehow inherently different or even “magical.”
“Stereotypes of who Native American people are still have this grab on people’s imaginations,” O’Loughlin says. “They don’t really see Native Americans as real people with real beliefs and real cultures and different languages, and even sovereign governments that are still alive and well today.”