Repossession, Decolonization, and Anthropology: The Return of First Nations Remains

“Members of the Tseycum First Nation from the Saanich Peninsula of southern Vancouver Island arrived home from New York City Thursday morning with some deeply personal cargo that left the island more than a century ago”

(CBC News, “First Nations remains return home to Vancouver Island: Spent decades at American Museum of Natural History in New York City,” June 12, 2008).

The remains of 50 persons were returned this week, in act of repossession that marks an attempt to continue the decolonization of aboriginal society, and the decolonization of the museum and the practice of archaeology, which in some parts is still a branch of anthropology.

“I fell across some papers about an archaeologist named Harlan Ingersoll Smith,” Cora Jacks said by phone from New York Wednesday.

Further research revealed that Smith was the former head of archaeology at the Geological Survey of Canada at the beginning of the 20th century.

Like many archaeologists of the time, Smith made a business out of digging up remains from native burial sites around B.C., which were then sold to museums around the world, with the proceeds often funding research expeditions to remote areas of the province.

“Five dollars for a skull and anywhere from $7.50 to $10 for the whole remains,” said Cora Jacks.

The practice was common among archeologists and museums at the turn of the century, and like the remains of many other indigenous people from around the world, some of the bones of 50 of the Tseycum forebears were bought by the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

For a video of the ceremony for the return of the remains, please click here (a new window will open, using Windows media player).

For videos of the news report, see the report in either Real Media or Quicktime.

Should Anthropologists Apologize?

Coming at the end of a week which has seen national and local apologies to aboriginals in Canada for attacks on their societies and cultures via the removal of children, and thus an aboriginal future (or at least this was the plan), this story about the return of remains, about the repossession of a past, seems to coincide well.

The issue of anthropology versus indigenous sovereignty came up early in the history of this blog, with posts such as this one, that one, and the other. And while some will argue, “it’s not an either-or, binary, dichotomous issue” — this is now the standard recitation offered in the face of conflict, and it’s a way to elude being the target of criticism — one will note how many universities and museums continue to fight against the return of remains, and preserving their roles as tombs. In addition, the level of resentment against aboriginal nations for wanting the remains of their dead, coupled with trends in anthropology that seek to delegitimate their identities and traditions, with anthropologists offering ‘counter evidence’ in court cases involving the recognition of aboriginal nations, and so on … one has to wonder if the time has finally come for anthropology associations and museums to offer official apologies of their own. One has to wonder, if hardened conservative politicians can take the step of admitting wrong, why anthropologists would want to find a thousand reasons for not doing so, looking for nuance for all the wrong reasons, and coming up with non-statements or no statements at all.

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  1. Pingback: Spirited Encounters: American Indians Protest Museum Policies and Practices « OPEN ANTHROPOLOGY

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