Racism, ‘Morbid Curiosity’ Drove US Museums to Collect Indigenous Remains

WASHINGTON — In December 1900, John Wesley Powell received “the most unusual Christmas present of any person in the United States, if not in the world,” reported the Chicago Tribune.

The gift for this first director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of Ethnology was a sealskin sack containing the mummified remains of an Alaska Native.

The sender was a government employee hired to hunt Indian “relics,” who said the remains had been difficult to acquire because “to come into the possession of a dead Indian is a great crime among the Indians.”

The report concluded that it was the only “Indian relic” of this kind at the Smithsonian and it was “beyond money value.”

As it turned out, it was not the museum’s only Alaskan mummy. In 1865, even before the U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia, Smithsonian naturalist William H. Dall was hired to accompany an expedition to study the potential for a telegraph route through Siberia to Europe. In his spare time, he looted graves in the Yukon and caves on several Aleutian Islands.

After the U.S. sealed the deal with Russia, the San Francisco-based Alaska Commercial Company won exclusive trading rights and established more than 90 trading posts in Alaska to meet the U.S. demand for ivory and furs.

It also instructed agents “to collect and preserve objects of interest in ethnology and natural history” and forward them to the Smithsonian. Ernest Henig looted 12 preserved bodies and a skull from a cave in the Aleutians in 1874. He donated two to California’s Academy of Science and sent the remainder to the Smithsonian.

More than 30 years after the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act meant to return those remains, a ProPublica investigation last year estimated that more than 110,000 Native American, Native Hawaiian and Alaska Native ancestors remain in public collections across the U.S.

It is not known how many Indigenous remains are closeted in private or overseas collections.

“Museums collected massive numbers, perhaps even millions,” said anthropologist John Stephen “Chip” Colwell, who previously served as curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. “Out of the 100 remains we [at the Denver museum] returned, I think only about five or seven individuals were actually even studied.”

So, what sparked this 19th-century frenzy for collecting human remains?

Reconciling science, religion

From the moment they first encountered Indigenous Americans, European thinkers struggled to understand who they were, where they came from, and whether they could be “civilized.”

The Christian bible taught them that all humans descended from Adam and that God created Adam in his own image. So why, Europeans wondered, did Native Americans, Africans and Asians look different?

Some Europeans theorized that all humans were created white, but dietary or environmental differences caused some of them to turn “brown, yellow, red or black.”

Other Europeans refused to accept that they shared a common ancestor with people of color and theorized that God created the races separately before he created Adam.

The birth of scientific racism

Presumptions that compulsory education and Christianization would force Native Americans to abandon their traditional cultures and become “civilized” into mainstream European-American culture proved untrue. So 19th-century scientists turned to advancements in medicine to “prove” the inferiority of Indigenous peoples.

“That’s when you see scientists like Samuel Morton, who invented a pseudoscience trying to place peoples within these social hierarchies based on their biology, and they needed bones to solidify those racial hierarchies,” said Colwell, who is editor-in-chief of the online magazine SAPIENS and author of “Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture.”

Morton was a Philadelphia physician who collected hundreds of human skulls of all races, mostly Native American, that were forwarded to him by physicians on the frontier. In his 1839 book “Crania Americana,” Morton classified human races based on skull measurements. Morton’s conclusions were used to support racist ideologies about the inferiority of non-white humans.

“They are not only averse to the restraints of education, but for the most part incapable of a continued process of reasoning on abstract subjects,” he wrote of Native Americans. “The structure of [the Native] mind appears to be different from that of the white man, nor can the two harmonise in their social relations except on the most limited scale.”

Despite Morton’s legacy as an early figure in scientific racism — ideologies that generate pseudo-scientific racist beliefs — his work earned him a reputation at the time as “a jewel of American science” and influenced the field of anthropology and public policy for decades.

In 1868, for example, the U.S. Surgeon General turned his attention away from the Civil War to the so-called “Indian wars” and instructed field surgeons to collect Native American skulls and weapons and send them to the Army Medical Museum in Washington “to aid in the progress of anthropological science.”

“For museums, especially the early years of collecting, it was a form of trophy keeping, a competition between museums,” Colwell told VOA. “And some of it was a competition between national governments to accumulate big collections to demonstrate their global and imperial aspirations.”

All the rest, he said, were fragments of morbid curiosity.

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