Barbara King: 'Bone Rooms' exposes racism in study of Native ancestors

The victims of the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee are loaded up on carts for burial. Photo from Wikpedia

Anthropologist Barbara J. King reviews Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums, a new book by Samuel J. Redman that exposes racism in the study of Native ancestors and other remains:
Interest in the “exotic bodies of nonwhite races” drove research for decades. At the Army Medical Museum in the second half of the 19th century, for instance, “the number of American Indian and African American bodies that the museum acquired vastly outpaced the number of European American remains” collected. In the case of Native Americans, skeletons were simply grabbed up from battlefields such as Little Bighorn and, as the American West opened up, from archaeological sites such as the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings in Colorado. And if “indigenous bodies were considered to be commodities,” the same was true of African American bodies, Redman explains.

An effort to classify our species by race lay behind much of the earliest work in U.S. bone rooms. The notion that humans across the globe could be carved up into a discrete number of races — the tripartite scheme of white, black and yellow-brown was popular — was taken for granted. Visitors to large exhibitions, such as San Diego’s “Science of Man” in 1915, were treated to exhibits implying that some nonwhite races still maintained primitive features, and assumptions of white supremacy were veiled thinly, if at all.

. . .

Anthropologists today stand in near-consensus in saying that “race” isn’t an accurate way to understand human variation — indeed, that races are not valid units to begin with. (The American Anthropological Association’s website states that “physical variations in the human species have no meaning except the social ones that humans put on them.”) Redman clearly knows that, and his readers would have been well served with a concluding section laying out the data behind it.

Redman does, however, provide a sobering coda to this story of American museums by explaining laws now on the books to curb unethical practices of bone collecting and to facilitate the return of remains to descendant communities. NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, enacted in 1990, applies to remains of Native Americans, Hawaiians and Alaskans, but only to those from federally recognized tribes. Still lying silent in museums today are remains of people not yet repatriated, of individuals from federally unrecognized tribes and of people who are deemed “culturally unidentifiable.” These remains represent our weighty national legacy of decades of racist science.

Get the Story:
Barbara J. King: ‘Bone Rooms’: Where scientific racists stored their ‘evidence’ (The Washington Post 4/14)

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