October 9, 2000
Fighting the Truth about American Indians
JOHN J. MILLER
When NASA launched the cremated remains of scientist Eugene Shoemaker aboard the Lunar Prospector nearly three years ago, the last thing it expected was a controversy. Here was a fitting tribute to a man who taught Apollo astronauts about the moon’s geology and helped discover the famous Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet that slammed into Jupiter. The probe containing his ashes was scheduled to scan the moon for signs of water, and then, mission accomplished 18 months later, crash into the lunar surface: a fitting graveyard for a fellow like Shoemaker.And yet the controversy came–but not from budget hawks in Congress worried about NASA’s payload. Instead, it came from Navajo Indians, who called it a sacrilege. “Using the moon as a burial site for an astronomer is a desecration and gross insensitivity to all who respect and practice Native American religions,” explained Albert Hale, then president of the Navajo Nation.
So what did NASA do? It apologized. “We sincerely regret any unintended offense,” wrote a NASA official. “We look forward to hearing from you and learning more about how Navajo traditions might help inform NASA’s pursuit of scientific knowledge.”
It was surely one of the strangest episodes in the history of space exploration. Yet few people noticed it. The media go into conniptions whenever some little hamlet in the Bible Belt elects a creationist to the local school board, but the NASA-Navajo spat generated only a couple of newspaper stories in the Southwest. Perhaps apologies emanating from the Clinton administration aren’t considered news anymore. More likely, there’s an unwritten rule at work here: It’s not acceptable to question Indian religious beliefs–or anything else about them-even when they’re asserted in seemingly bizarre contexts.
That’s because American Indians occupy a unique moral high ground in the public imagination. Their systematic extermination and relocation is one of the most brutal acts in U.S. history. Most Americans know this intuitively, but they’d rather not think about it-so instead they choose simply to feel sorry for the Indians living today. This aura of victimhood has won Indians a whole series of special rights involving everything from building casinos to going on whale hunts.
Yet the past is not a simple morality play, and a new round of scholarship questions the popular image of Indians as innocent children of nature. There’s a major battle going on over the ownership of history, and it pits academics against activists who insist that Indians be seen only in certain lights.
The veneration of Indians is nothing new: It goes back at least as far as the stories of Pocahontas and the first Thanksgiving. Its most recent manifestation is the Sacajawea dollar-which itself is just the latest in a long line of Indian-head coins dating back to the 19th century. There have been plenty of other Indian stereotypes, too, including the scalp-crazy “Injun” savages from old movies and the pulps. But when was the last time you saw one of these? They’re almost as extinct as the buffalo that used to roam the Great Plains.
Which brings us to exhibit A: the buffalo. Indians were remarkably efficient buffalo killers, with individual hunters dressing in skins to get close shots, and groups of them driving whole herds off cliffs. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Indians inflicted an enormous amount of damage on this Edenic symbol of wild North America. In his recent book The Ecological Indian, Shepard Krech III of Brown University writes that Indian belief systems contributed to overhunting. Many Plains Indians thought that if even a single buffalo were allowed to escape from hunters, it would alert others; as a result of this belief, the hunters would “kill as many as possible” whether they needed the buffalo or not.
Perhaps the most important factor contributing to the buffalo’s brush with extinction, however, was the demand for hides on the East Coast. Princeton historian Andrew C. Isenberg, author of The Destruction of the Bison, estimates that Indians were killing 600,000 buffalo each year by the 1840s-an unsustainable death rate. By the time white hide-hunters arrived on the scene, the buffalo were trapped in a downward spiral. “Without their involvement, the buffalo would probably have only lasted another 30 years,” said Dan Flores of the University of Montana in the New York Times.
These professors all pay a price for their views: “It’s anti-Indian stuff,” sniffs the University of Colorado’s Vine Deloria. Yet there’s long been circumstantial evidence that Indians played a key role in the Pleistocene extinctions of well-known North American megafauna-mammoths, saber-tooth cats, giant ground sloths, and scores of other species whose bones are now on display near the dinosaur wings of natural-history museums. Proof of the Indians’ involvement in nearly wiping out the buffalo is much stronger. Ignoring it now is like ignoring the fact that many black Africans participated in the slave trade-a historical truth of tremendous inconvenience to peddlers of victimhood theory.
There’s even grimmer news in the recent scholarship. In September, the journal Nature published incontrovertible evidence that many southwestern Indians practiced cannibalism in ancient times. This was suspected for years, given the frequency with which butchered and cooked human bones turned up in archaeological digs. But some scholars believed this was proof of nothing more than rituals whose meaning is now lost, or perhaps the execution of people thought to be witches. Just because the Anasazi were tossing dismembered body parts into cooking pots doesn’t necessarily mean they were also eating them, right?
Last year saw the publication of the groundbreaking book Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest, by Arizona State University’s Christy Turner II, a longtime advocate of the cannibalism theory. It was an important work, but some scholars decided to ignore it. “I was just at an archeological conference,” said UCLA’s Steven A. LeBlanc in the Los Angeles Times. “There were tenured professors there who said they were not going to read Christy’s book. They don’t want to think about it.” But now scientists have found human fecal remains containing proteins that could only have gotten there from the consumption of human flesh. There hasn’t been much of a response from the naysayers yet, except to recycle the familiar claim that the ancestors of today’s Indians didn’t do these things, because there’s no mention of cannibalism in their oral traditions.
Who can blame the descendants of the Anasazi-today’s Hopi, Pueblo, and Zuni peoples-for wishing the cannibalism stories weren’t true? The charge of institutionalized cannibalism is embarrassing, and suggests a whole culture of vicious Jeffrey Dahmers. But in fact, cannibalism proves no such thing. It was not an uncommon practice in premodern societies. There’s plenty of evidence of it occurring all over the globe, including Europe (mainly in the Stone Age). What’s so surprising about cannibalism among ancient Americans?
A deeper understanding of all this requires scientific investigation. Researchers still don’t know why the Anasazi ate human flesh, and they won’t ever know unless they can do their work without political interference. Unfortunately, studying prehistoric America is becoming a difficult business. A 1990 law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, has given tribal activists a say in whether scientists can study ancient human remains, as well as the right to retrieve items in museum collections. There are dozens of examples of the government forcing researchers to surrender potentially important finds to Indian tribes for reburial, before even the most rudimentary examinations of them can take place. In August, the federal government refused to turn over the 10,000-year-old Spirit Cave Man to Nevada tribes petitioning for it-but won’t let scientists examine it either. It’s off-limits to everybody. The government is also expected to announce a decision in the landmark Kennewick Man case no later than September 24 (see “Remains of the Day,” NR, March 8, 1999).
Many mysteries remain about the original peopling of North America-scientists still aren’t sure when human settlers first arrived, or who they were. Yet if something like a Rosetta Stone were to surface, the government might very well force researchers to give it up because a handful of tribal activists considers it a sacrilege to study such things. The desires of Indians who don’t participate in tribal activism-in other words, the majority of them, who might very well want to learn more about the past-are rarely accommodated.
Despite these struggles, the remarkable diversity of pre-Columbian America is beginning to emerge. Some Indians were noble, others ignoble; some were generous, others greedy; some ate buffalo meat, others had a taste for human flesh. Covering this up is the surest way to deny American Indians their humanity. It turns them into nothing more than totems of identity politics.