Artifacts on display at Don Miller's farm in 2014. Authorities found thousands of artifacts along with the remains of more than 500 Native ancestors during a raid at the property in Indiana. Photo: FBI

Mary Annette Pember: Digging up and robbing Native graves still considered acceptable

The theft of Native ancestors and artifacts continues despite laws treating such activities as crimes. Independent journalist Mary Annette Pember examines why some people still think it's acceptable to loot burial grounds and sacred places:

A recent FBI press release is a reminder that digging up and robbing Native American graves is still considered acceptable by many Americans and barely treated as a crime. Our dead, like butterflies pinned to a collector’s board, are treated as stuff for collectors and hobbyists. We are “artifacts.”

On February 27, 2019, the FBI issued a press release and a unique request. The Bureau’s Art Crime Team is reaching out to tribes in the United States for help in repatriating approximately 500 sets of human remains looted from Native American burial grounds. The remains were found during a 2014 FBI raid on a vast collection of artifacts and antiquities from around the world held by Don Miller of rural Rush County, Indiana.

I covered the 2014 Indiana case as a journalist for Indian Country Today and also covered other cases of illegal Native American artifact and remains hunting and collecting. I continue to be baffled by the complete disrespect white folks have for Native American graves versus the respect they have for those of their own ancestors. Even more baffling to me is the urge to dig up and own the dead — anybody’s dead. What internal mental process transforms grave-digging into an acceptable hobby?

The short answer is racism. Multigenerational, entrenched racism has so thoroughly scrubbed clean the practice of Native American artifact hunting and collecting that it has been normalized and elevated as an acceptable right for the descendants of European settlers.

The European settlers who conquered and dominated Native peoples sought to justify their violence by casting us as less than human. This violence continues in the current day, with some portraying us as denizens of a long dead past and others treating us as part of nature’s fauna.

Read More on the Story
Mary Annette Pember: Native Peoples’ Bones Are Not Collectors’ Items. They Must Be Returned. (Truthout April 28, 2019)

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
Man in Indiana kept bones from more than 500 Native ancestors at his farm (February 27, 2019)