A Report From the Bioarchaeologists’ Northeast Regional Dialogue Conference


February 17 was a warm sunny day, a far cry from what we have come to expect for a winter day here in the Northeast, and I should have been out enjoying it. Instead, I spent most of the day indoors, within a darkened conference room on the University of Albany campus, observing the second annual Bioarchaeologists’ Northeast Regional Dialogue Conference, or B.A. NeRD as they cutely refer to it. I was there for the simple reason that I know the legacy of anthropology; I know that when the guns were put away, having served their objective in subjugating American Indian peoples, in came the scientists with their trowels and notepads who oversaw the outright theft of Native properties, goods and ancestral bodies from their graves.

I’ve studied the exotic and foreign culture of American anthropologists for over a decade, and despite their claims to have moved beyond the blatant racism of their 19th century heroes in the discipline, their denials ring hollow in the face of evidence that clearly shows their grave centered ghoulish activities to be alive (excuse the pun) and well today. I was there not only to examine their research and methodologies for potential violations of NAGPRA (Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act), but to let them know in no uncertain way that they are being carefully observed. Also in attendance were Chief Stuart Patterson and Christine Abrams, both members of the Haudenosaunee Standing Committee on Burial Rules and Regulations, though of course I speak only for myself and present an overview of this macabre spectacle as I saw it.

The conference was attended mostly by undergraduate and graduate students of biological anthropology, most were female and in their 20s or 30s, and all were white. To orient myself to the discussions I picked up a program guide, the cover of which was illustrated with an image of a skeleton and the words secunda ossium tabula. This is Latin, which translates roughly to the second table of bones, and indeed the drawn image shows an animate skeleton staring, as if in deep thought, at a skull on a table. The drawing is attributed to an early 16th century European anatomist/physician named Andreas Vesalius, and marks a time when "criminals" and other such societal outcasts were subject to dissection in the name of medical science, and indeed the artist is often dubbed as the father of human anatomy. An interesting choice of imagery considering anthros have tried to distance themselves from those pseudo-scientific days. What are they trying to say with this imagery, I wondered. Does this mean they (the skeleton) are thoughtfully contemplating themselves (the skull on the table)?

Nope, no such luck. While the presenter’s primary subjects, or rather their specimens/samples as they refer to the dead bodies, were not specifically American Indians, a clear indicator of the impact of NAGPRA and increased Indian scrutiny and surveillance of the practice of anthropology, they still were the ‘other’. The ‘other��� is always the powerless. So, they talked about bodies gathered from the Newburgh ‘Colored’ Burial Ground, children recovered from unmarked burials at an old church, the impoverished who died at a poorhouse and an “almshouse”, as well as Indigenous peoples from the Andean region of South America. Where NAGPRA has begun a mandated process of repatriation here (despite a lack of actual compliance from many federally funded museums, historical societies, and academic institutions), the latter have very little protection and control over the disposition of their ancestors in places like Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. They never actually study themselves, these anthros, notwithstanding the imagery on their program guide. They study the ‘other’ and the ‘other’ is always the marginalized.

The ritual of the bone-coven conference is linear, with presenters reading their scripts with a large screen in the backdrop. The attendees noticeably sit up in their seats, craning their necks to get a good view of the sensationalized photographs of dead bodies that each presenter shows. They are fascinated by the bizarre, by cranial modifications, by the marks of disease/pathogens on the bones, with noticeable sighs and "oohs." Despite this, and regardless of what specific area of the skeleton they are talking about, they always seem to show a head shot of the deceased and this conference was no exception. I cannot claim to know what they think about as they look into the empty eyes of the dead, but they sit transfixed, and it does not appear to be reverence. It is more like hunger and desire, and their research is indeed predicated on the consumption of the ‘other’ figuratively and literally. We have all heard the term "bone lickers" after all, where the anthros would lick an item to determine whether it was a bone or not. Maybe pragmatics had little to do with this, and maybe they just wanted to taste the "other." The presenters often reify the remains as well. That is they articulate to the audience what the bones must have been thinking, what the bones must have been doing. Like priests privy to esoteric knowledge, they proceed as if they and they alone have access to these past lives through their medium of science, disallowing all other forms of cultural understanding.

In all cases, the bones of the marginalized ‘other’ were “excavated” and removed to the presenter’s respective institutions where the analysis was conducted. In no instance were the bodies then returned to their original resting place, but remained in boxes stored at the various universities. Anthros have argued that their unfettered access to deceased human bodies, allows them to perform their analysis, the results of which are somehow purported to be of value for all of humanity. Of course, this is just window dressing meant to cover their own self-serving interests. After all such ‘work’ can be quite profitable, with book deals, tenured university positions, and so on all potentially part of the deal. Moreover, it does not take much to blow up the ‘serving all humanity’ fairytale. For example in a presentation by Hosek and Novak, they demonstrate their knowledge of pathologies by showing the effects of various diseases on skeletons, yet this data is derived from the body of modern medical knowledge not from their analysis. In other words, they are simply showing the effects of disease on bones, something that is already known and has been known for quite some time, and not as claimed as adding to the body of literature on such diseases. Or take for example the presentation by McCormick et. al. on the ‘other’ excavated from a poorhouse. Their jaw dropping, awe-inspiring conclusion: “The archaeological and bioarchaeological analysis suggests these individuals were a marginalized group, with little, if any, access to health care, many of whom engaged in habitual and strenuous labor”. Geesh, thanks to Mr. and Mrs. scientist for telling us that poor people, who lived in poor houses, worked hard and did so without health care. Or DeWitte and Hughes-Morey who tell us, behind an entanglement of worthless statistics, that shorter, less well-nourished peoples died more often during the European Black Death than those who were taller and healthier. Gasp, what a revelation!

Early on in the presentations, I asked a couple of questions. In particular, some had mentioned their “sample,” again a euphemism for someone’s deceased ancestor, was composed of “mixed race” individuals. I asked how they determined this, whether through archival research (e.g. church, census documents), or through their actual analysis. The answer from the presenters was from both, which in turn prompted my second question: is the concept of race a biological reality or a social reality? The answer they gave was that race was a biological reality, something that the other sub-disciplines of anthropology (cultural, archaeology, linguistic) dismissed by the middle of the 20th century as a falsehood. Nor did anyone in the audience counter this notion of race as a biological reality. This was argued by most of the anthro litigants in the so-called Kennewick man case (the Ancient One), and used as justification to deny repatriation of him to American Indian claimants. Races have been variously and arbitrarily defined through the centuries as inherent, different, and unchanging, as if there were biological differences between each. All human couplings are able to produce viable offspring, and human variation (skin color, hair type, eye shape, average height, etc.) was shown by the so-called grandfather of anthropology Franz Boas (a prolific Indian grave robber in his own right!) to come about as a result of adaptation to new and changing environments. Obviously, the bio anthros at this conference assume biological race to be an unchanging condition, putting them at odds with the rest of anthropology, and the medical profession in general.

Christine Abrams asked Kyle McCormick if there were any American Indians in his “sample” of bodies taken for analysis from a ‘Poorhouse’ found on the Onondaga Community College. He answered that the poor condition of the bones, the lack of cultural items, and the lack of crania to determine ancestry all constitute little evidence that American Indians were there. She also asked him how he defined his categories of disturbed and not disturbed burials, to which he replied that the disturbed ones were scattered and not whole skeletons. Christine Abrams expressed what should be the obvious when she responded to this by pointing out that “when they dug them up by the ground-disturbing activity (of archaeological excavation), that they were desecrated, that they were all disturbed”! Once again, we have anthropologists, who proclaim they are experts in the study of humankind/culture, simply imposing their own arbitrarily defined categories (disturbed/undisturbed) upon the ‘other’ with no regards to living humans/cultures who may be impacted adversely by their designations. What would happen if the anthropologists actually recognized these alternative criteria for disturbance? They would have no more ‘specimens’ to ooh and ah over! Predictably academic gatekeepers and established members of the anthropological culture step in and intercede when the ‘other’ poses such thought provoking, logical question to largely inexperienced graduate or undergraduate students who may actually be open to such new conceptualizations. Keynote speaker Kenneth Nystrom did just this, coming to the assistance of McCormick by stating that it would be “irresponsible to make determinations of ancestry without further data”. This is a clever statement in that it both further marginalizes the already marginalized by implying that they are being irresponsible as opposed to the responsible anthros, and puts in an added plug for more research (grave digging) to gather more data. Nystrom gave his presentation on bodies dug up from the Newburgh Colored Burial Ground where according to a City of Newburgh memo from the city manager Jean-Ann McGrane dated April of 2008 there likely were American Indians. “Any commemoration and memorial or spiritual observance at this site should take into consideration the likelihood that Native Americans and other people of color were interred there…”(McGrane 2008). Hmmm. Should we believe the city manager who is not a trained anthropologist, or should we believe Nystrom who is and did not mention any American Indians as being there? He probably would have to return “his samples” if they were determined to be Native American in ancestry, giving him an incentive for not being irresponsible. This is simply, as James Riding In asserts, ‘the fox running the henhouse’ (Riding In 2009). Interestingly in answer to another question regarding a period in the 19th century when grave robbery to procure “specimens” for medical research was common, he indicated that such medical research could be divided into the categories of dissection and autopsies. Where autopsies were performed to determine the cause of death, dissection was reserved “for the Irish and…”. He never finished his sentence, perhaps aware that American Indians were in attendance. Who can forget, after all, how the Smithsonian and other reputable institutions boiled the flesh off Indians so as to measure their bones and skulls and determine their ‘inferiority’.

Knowing the legacy of anthropology, a legacy that continues today, why should we take any anthropologist at their word? My answer is that we should not and that is why I attended this gathering of ghouls. I would rather suspect the worst, and be suitably impressed when an anthro acts in an ethical way, than assume they tell the truth and somehow work on behalf of all humanity while actively disempowering Indian people behind closed doors. As is the case with every such conference that I attend, I simply could not make it to the end and left to breath clean air and enjoy the waning sunlight. However, I will be there every time a conference like this convenes in Haudenosaunee territory, to point out contradictions, to cut through the strategies of avoidance, denial, and silencing, and to observe the observers and let them know the days of unfettered access to the ‘other’ are coming to an end!

Brian Broadrose is an adjunct professor at SUNY Orange and a doctoral candidate at Binghamton University. His research examines the writings of anthropologists/archaeologists as artifacts in and of themselves. These artifacts shed light on their attitudes towards American Indians, the strained relationship between the studiers and the studied, and the inequality that continues to characterize this relationship.