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Bone Rooms: How Elite Schools and Museums Amassed Black and Native Human Remains Without Consent

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Image Credit: Aaron Watson/Flickr

Revelations the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton hold the remains of a child killed by Philadelphia police in the 1985 MOVE bombing are the latest development in a conversation about demanding respectful treatment of African American remains in museum collections, especially those of the enslaved. The Penn Museum also apologized last week for holding more than 1,000 stolen skulls of enslaved people in its Morton Collection, and the president of Harvard University issued a letter in January acknowledging the 22,000 human remains in its collections included 15 from people of African descent who may have been enslaved in the United States, vowing review of the school’s ethics policies. “This is a really vast problem,” says historian Samuel Redman, author of “Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums,” who also describes the repatriation of Native American remains after Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990. “There are individual instances like this that are horrific and we need to pay attention to, but it is a symptom of this much larger problem.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. You can watch, listen and read transcripts using our iOS and Android apps. Download them for free from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store today. This is Democracy Now!

This week’s apologies from the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University for the handling of the remains of an African American child killed by Philadelphia police in the 1985 MOVE bombing that killed 11 people, five of them children, come after the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, known as the Penn Museum, just apologized earlier this month for holding more than 1,000 stolen skulls of enslaved people in its Morton Collection. Samuel Morton was a 19th century white supremacist researcher who directed workers to pull the bones from unmarked graves.

In January, the president of Harvard University issued a letter acknowledging that the 22,000 human remains in its collections included 15 from the people of African descent who may have been enslaved, and pledged to review its policies of ethical stewardship.

For more on the growing demands for respectful treatment of African American remains in museum collections, especially those of the enslaved, we’re joined by Samuel Redman, historian at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, author of Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums and the forthcoming books, Prophets and Ghosts: The Story of Salvage Anthropology and The Museum in Crisis.

Professor Redman, thanks for joining us. Start off by responding to the use of these children’s bones, that the police killed in 1985, that apparently the Philadelphia medical examiner gave to this professor, this Princeton University professor and University of Pennsylvania professor, Alan Mann, that are — continue, 36 years later, to be shown in classes. It’s not clear if it’s one child, a 14-year-old named Tree Africa, or two, Tree Africa and Delisha Africa. What about this?

SAMUEL REDMAN: Well, first of all, thank you for having me. Let’s begin by crediting the students and the protesters at Penn and at Princeton in raising their voices in response to this really troubling and gut-wrenching situation.

The other thing that I think we need to say and we need to start calling for is a much larger response and a more sweeping response to this as a problem. Part of what people are only really starting to grapple with is the idea that this is a really vast problem, that there are individual instances like this that are horrific and we need to pay attention to, but it is a symptom of this much larger problem.

As you mentioned, Harvard has more than 22,000 sets of human remains. The Smithsonian, according to at least one count, had more than 30,000 sets of human remains. And it’s not just the large institutions; there are smaller institutions. The Denver Museum of Nature & Science had a count, at one point, of 120 human remains. Medical museums across the country, smaller institutions, historical societies. There are also private collections of human remains, as strange as that sounds. In some states, it’s still legal to traffic in the buying and selling of human remains.

I think we need a much larger, more sweeping response to this as a problem, and one that recognizes the deep history that is present, that is intimately tied into colonialism, white supremacy, scientific racism, and understand, though, that this is not just a phenomenon that was strictly confined to the 19th century. This is something that continued up through the 20th century. Once these repositories were established, these massive bone rooms, people started finding other ways to get remains into those collections, including through police investigations, accidental discoveries and a whole host of other ways. So, yes, it is important that there were these high-profile 19th century archaeologists who were collecting human remains and human skulls especially, but it established this tradition that we haven’t fully grappled with or understood on its vastness.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the Association of Black Anthropologists, the Society of Black Archaeologists and the Black in Bioanthropology Collective issued a statement in solidarity with the demands of Mike Africa Jr., a second-generation MOVE family member who was 6 years old when Philadelphia police dropped that bomb on MOVE. And they said, quote, “[We] are painfully aware of the barbaric history of anthropology, especially when it comes to populations of peoples of African descent. We know that our discipline has been mobilized to rationalize eugenics and white supremacy and to justify slavery and colonialism. We also know that ethnographic museums … have supported the academic rationale for the institutionalization of racism in anthropology textbooks, courses, and curricula.”

They added, quote, “Black anthropologists should not be alone in expressing this outrage and bearing this heavy ethical burden. All anthropologists should be enraged. All anthropologists need to condemn this barbaric and savage act by its own practitioners. And white anthropologists, in particular, should not only hold themselves accountable to the ways that they continue to uphold normalized forms of antiBlackness and harm through their research and theorizing, but should also actively work to undo the centuries of violence and trauma done to nonwhite communities.”

Professor Redman, your response to this statement?

SAMUEL REDMAN: I agree with all of that. And I do think that we should turn to Black anthropologists and scientists and community leaders for leadership on this as a question and to better understand how to move forward.

We have some models, but I want to point out, in 1990, there was a law passed called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, and that created something of a legal structure for tribal nations to request the return and, in many cases, reburial of ancestors. But it is a highly imperfect solution. It is a law that was sort of passed using thinking from the 1980s, progressive thinking, in many respects, from the 1980s, to try to do something in response to this vast problem that I’ve described.

So, the law is limited by the fact that it references very specific types of material in museums, that a lot of the onus is on tribal communities to fund, or partly fund, and take the mantle of this investigation and the legal — huge amounts of legal and bureaucratic paperwork. So, that, in some ways — we should think of that as like the bare minimum. And if that’s the bare minimum in holding these institutions accountable, what does that look like, not just for the massive problem of Indigenous remains in museums, but also for Black remains and for the remains of many other people from around the world that ended up in U.S. museums? Because NAGPRA really only deals with Native Americans that are living in what is now the United States, or Native Alaskans, Native Hawaiians, but it doesn’t comprehensively deal with this as an issue.

And like I say, it’s an underfunded mandate. There are people that are doing hard work in repatriation offices within museums, like the Smithsonian, who could use more support. And especially if we think about this as a more broader, sweeping problem that requires big action in response, then maybe we can start to imagine a future where we can begin to start to address or rectify some of these horrible abuses.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to NAGPRA, the bill you talked about in 1990 Congress passed, called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which outlined the legal procedures for the repatriation of human remains and sacred objects from federal agencies, museums, educational institutions and state and local governments. This is Amber Hood, director of preservation and repatriation for the Chickasaw Nation, explaining the reburial process and their efforts to honor and protect their ancestors.

AMBER HOOD: Because it was never intended for our ancestors to be disturbed, thoughts for how to handle such matters was not passed down. We rely on our leaders and our elders for guidance. With a pure heart and good intentions, we do our best to right a terrible wrong. The reburial team travels together and places the ancestors in the grave as part of the reburial ceremony. Leadership and elders oversee the work. A Chickasaw speaker offers a prayer and tobacco. Then a song is sung in our Native language. And we don’t use markers for all of the reburials, depending on the situation, but these are a few that we have placed. Once we have completed repatriations in the United States, we will still have our work cut out for us, because our ancestors were sent all over the world.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Amber Hood, director of preservation and repatriation for the Chickasaw Nation. And she’s referring to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. I’m wondering your thoughts on next steps. Your response, for example, to Daina Ramey Berry, a professor at University of Texas, author of The Price for Their Pound of Flesh, who says, “It would be wonderful to have an African American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act”?

SAMUEL REDMAN: I agree, on a sort of fundamental level, that we need a big sweeping piece of — I don’t know exactly if this is legislation or what exactly the solution is, but NAGPRA really — like I say, it compelled many museums to begin doing what we really should think of as the bare minimum, things like inventorying their collections and trying to know how many remains even were connected to different groups of people.

And even with that, especially between the first few years of when this went down, between about 1990 and 1995, there was a lot of back and forth and battling and, in my view, and I think a view shared by a lot of Native people, a lot of shell games and roadblocks being thrown up and ways in which people were maybe following the letter of the law but not really at all following the spirit of the law. So, we’ve seen some examples of repatriations going beyond NAGPRA, either repatriations going to Canada or to other countries, or materials that don’t necessarily fall under the purview of the law. But, by and large, museums will really only do institutionally what they are legally required to do. So —

AMY GOODMAN: And I wanted to bring in The New York Times recently reporting that the Smithsonian Institution is considering issuing a statement about the remains it holds of African Americans. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History houses the nation’s largest collection of human remains. In an interview in the Times, Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch said the museum is developing new guidance with the imperative to, quote, “honor and remember.” Bunch added, quote, “Slavery is in many ways the last great unmentionable in American discourse. Anything we can do to both help the public understand the impact of slavery, and find ways to honor the enslaved, is at the top of my list.” And, of course, Lonnie Bunch was the founding head of the museum of — the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Professor Redman.

SAMUEL REDMAN: I want to commend Dr. Bunch, because he’s taken leadership on this question in what, within, I think, even — from what I understand, even within the Smithsonian Institution, this has been a controversial matter. And, to me, yes, this is like what Aisha said earlier. Protests and talking to the media, in some ways, you know, can compel the hand of these institutions, but I think we need to think even more concretely in what that should mean for the future. And it shouldn’t be just a flashpoint here and there in recognition of these awful scenarios. It should be a more sweeping understanding of what we even have in museums.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to, clearly, continue this discussion, Samuel Redman, historian at University of Massachusetts Amherst, author of Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums.

That does it for our show. Tomorrow at 1:30 Eastern time, I’ll be doing a live stream, a panel discussion with whistleblowers Dan Ellsberg and Edward Snowden on the 50th anniversary of Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers. Go to democracynow.org to sign up for the event. It’s free.

And a very Happy Birthday to Anna Gold and to Oona Phillips Guerra! That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman. Stay safe. Wear a mask.

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