A Long American Tradition

On the robbing of indigenous graves.

By Margaret D. Jacobs

Monday, October 25, 2021

The “Meditation” sculpture at Indian Mounds Regional Park, St. Paul, Minnesota, 2019. Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Nebraska’s settlers and professional archaeologists did not regard the Pawnees’ relatives in the same way as they did their own. Settler burial grounds were sacred sites for paying one’s respects to the dead; cemeteries for Indians were sites of curiosity, amusement, and profit. This was an attitude shared by most white settlers toward most American Indian people, for centuries. When the Stephen H. Long expedition, a government-sponsored exploration into the Rocky Mountains, passed through Nebraska in 1820, it obtained the skull of a Pawnee who had been killed in 1818. According to Edwin James, a botanist who chronicled the journey, “we thought it no sacrilege to compliment [the skull] with a place upon one of our packhorses.”

Such disrespect toward Pawnee burials betrayed a view that Indians were less than human. Indeed, many settlers may have felt justified in such careless treatment of Pawnee burials due to the dominance of dehumanizing rhetoric regarding American Indians in the nineteenth century.

Many nineteenth-century men of science were bent on creating racial theories of European superiority. To add insult to injury, many so-called scientists also used the skulls they had looted from Indian graves to “prove” that Indians were intellectually inferior to whites. Dr. Samuel George Morton, who helped establish the discipline of American physical anthropology, examined and measured the Pawnee skull from the 1820 Long expedition, along with those of 143 other Native Americans and hundreds of African American skulls. He asserted in his 1839 book Crania Americana that Caucasians had the biggest brains, averaging eighty-seven cubic inches, Indians were in the middle with an average of eighty-two cubic inches, and Negroes had the smallest brains with an average of seventy-eight cubic inches. Morton believed that brain size correlated with intelligence, and as Stephen Jay Gould has written in The Mismeasure of Man, he hypothesized that “a ranking of races could be established objectively by physical characteristics of the brain, particularly by its size.” (Gould and other critics have utterly debunked Morton’s work. Gould went so far as to study Morton’s calculations and concluded that he had engaged in “fudging and finagling” to support his preconceptions.)

Scientists like Morton and doctors who worked for the Army Medical Museum particularly coveted Indian skulls for their medical research. Wars and massacres against Indian people offered a prime means of procuring Indian crania. By the late 1860s, Indian skull collecting was no longer just an incidental sideline of the federal government’s wars against Indian peoples. It was now official policy. According to Pawnee historian James Riding In,

The surgeon general’s office issued, in 1868, a memorandum ordering army field surgeons to collect Indian crania for scientific study. It noted that “a craniological collection was commenced last year at the Army Medical Museum, and that it already has 143 specimens of skulls…to aid the progress of anthropological science by obtaining measurements of a large number of skulls of the aboriginal races of North America.” The memorandum particularly urged "medical officers stationed in the Indian country or in the vicinity of ancient Indian mounds or cemeteries in the Mississippi Valley or the Atlantic region” to become involved in gathering human remains.

Such practices deeply offended the Pawnees and other Indians, and settlers knew it.


The prominent Pawnee attorney Roger Echo-Hawk explains that there are “strong Pawnee proscriptions against grave-tampering” and that “the Pawnee regard the unsanctioned removal of grave offerings as a spiritually dangerous violation of the dead.” Riding In concurs. “Equally critical to our perspective are cultural norms that stressed that those who tampered with the dead did so with profane, evil, or demented intentions,” he writes. “From this vantage point, the study of stolen remains constitutes abominable acts of sacrilege, desecration, and depravity.”

It wasn’t just the army that procured skulls for science. Physical anthropologists such as Morton and his disciples also became more directly involved in the procurement of skulls. Even Franz Boas, the renowned anthropologist who came to be known as a critic of the racism of physical anthropology and the founding father of a new kind of cultural anthropology, wrote in the 1880s, “it is most unpleasant work to steal bones from a grave, but…someone has to do it.” Historian Ann Fabian notes that “peddling skulls helped to finance his studies.”

Any natural history museum worth its salt needed its own collection of American Indian remains. The Field Museum in Chicago sent out its assistant curator, anthropologist George Dorsey, to gather Indian remains and sacred burial objects in the late 1890s. Dorsey ventured to the northwest coast of Canada to collect Haida remains. After Dorsey and his Canadian accomplices had swept through the area, a local missionary wrote to an area newspaper to complain that he had found coffins and some discarded human remains scattered about where these men of science had raided Haida graves. Museums knew that their practices were deeply troubling to American Indians, but they went ahead anyway.

It was not just American Indian or African American crania that scientists sought. They were interested in proving that there were differences between and a hierarchy among “races.” So they also sought the skulls of European Americans, albeit very poor white ones. An uproar developed over this practice, however. Roger and his brother Walter Echo-Hawk, an attorney and president of the Pawnee nation business council, note that there were protests and riots when, in 1788, medical students in New York dug up the graves of European Americans. Legislatures drafted new laws to protect white burials.

By contrast, the federal government passed a law to formalize and regulate the desecration of Indian graves that settlers had been carrying out for some time. In 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law the American Antiquities Act, ostensibly to conserve and preserve archaeological sites on public lands and to prevent the looting and desecration of American Indian burial grounds and other sites. Critics charge that the act had little effect on looting by private individuals—only a handful of people were ever charged with violating the act. Certainly, it didn’t deter settlers from digging up Pawnee graves in Nebraska.

On the other hand, the act sanctioned the idea that Indian remains were for public consumption and could be permanently removed from their sites and ensconced in museums. By the 1950s, the Nebraska State Historical Society was warehousing an estimated five hundred to a thousand Pawnee bodies and thousands of funerary goods.

The Pawnees were not alone in having their graves so disrespected. Nearly every tribe suffered from the same practice in which settler looters—some amateur, some professional—dug up their graves. And nearly all of the remains and burial goods that the raiders stole from the graves ended up in American or European museums.

Indian grave robbing is a long American tradition. Anthropologist and museum curator Chip Colwell (of settler descent) points out that the first probable grave looting in American history likely occurred in 1620 when Pilgrims “despoiled the grave of a man and a child out of curiosity” not far from Plymouth Rock. They took away, according to one of the Pilgrims, “sundry of the prettiest things.” Even our founding fathers got in on the act. Thomas Jefferson dug up an Indian burial mound in Virginia in the late 1700s.


No one knows exactly how many Indian graves have been dug up by settlers—for science, for profit, or for amusement. The museums offer modest estimates. The Smithsonian says that it had 14,000 to 18,000 Indian bodies. The National Museum of Natural History: 17,000. Colwell estimates that 1,500 museums hold 200,000 Native American skeletons and one million grave goods and sacred objects. American Indian groups put the number much higher. American Indians Against Desecration estimates that 300,000–600,000 Indian bodies were, or still are, in university, museum, and lab collections across the United States. Two attorneys who have long studied the issue, Jack Trope and Walter Echo-Hawk, conclude that 100,000 to 2 million deceased indigenous people have been “dug up from their graves for storage or display by government agencies, museums, universities, and tourist attractions.”

Why did so many settlers think it was acceptable to dig up Indian graves? We could chalk it up to the common “man of the times” argument. You remember that: everyone (read: settlers) thought this way at the time. You can’t judge settlers of the past by today’s standards. But we know this wasn’t true. Army field surgeons, anthropologists, and museum curators knew they were deeply offending American Indians. They went to great lengths to cover up their crimes of obtaining skeletons and burial goods, such as staging funerals of indigenous people while covertly keeping their bodies for science.

Did settlers think it was acceptable because they believed that Indians were dying out, becoming extinct? Under this logic, their skeletons and burial goods were of no consequence to the few remaining Indians. And at the least, their remains could be preserved for posterity, for Western science. It was true that the Indian population was in decline at the turn of the twentieth century, but it rebounded after that. And Indian populations were in decline primarily because the U.S. government had failed to fulfill its treaty promises and had enacted policies—such as forced removal and confinement to reservations without adequate food supplies—that all but assured starvation, disease, and high rates of mortality among Indian populations. On top of that, the government and settlers often killed Indians with impunity. Population decline was not inevitable; settlers were largely responsible for it.

Other settlers believed, and still do today, that such desecration of graves was justified in the name of science. Sure, the practice was culturally insensitive, but scientists, if not amateur pothunters, had good intentions. They simply wanted to contribute to the store of knowledge about human history. This argument just doesn’t hold up, because such different standards have been used in regard to indigenous versus settler bodies. We don’t allow the digging up of nonindigenous graves to be studied in this way, unless they are of extremely ancient peoples, such as Egyptian mummies, or prehuman hominids like Lucy.

The destruction of burial sites is actually a tactic of colonization everywhere, a common means of erasing the history of a people from the land. In 2019 intrepid journalists reported that the Chinese government has been destroying Uighur burial grounds in northwest China as part of its ongoing attempt to suppress the Muslim Uighur minority within its borders. Journalists found that the government has rounded up an estimated one million Uighur and other Muslim ethnic minorities in China and sent them to so-called reeducation camps, all in the name of opposing religious extremism. And since 2014 the Beijing administration has been smashing Uighur graves, scattering Uighur bones, and flattening at least forty-five Uighur cemeteries. Satellite imagery shows that the cemeteries have been overlaid with parks, parking lots, new cemeteries, and housing developments. Uighur activists have protested. “This is all part of China’s campaign to effectively eradicate any evidence of who we are, to effectively make us like the Han Chinese,” said Salih Hudayar. The graveyard where his great-grandparents had been buried was demolished. “That’s why they’re destroying all of these historical sites, these cemeteries, to disconnect us from our history, from our fathers and our ancestors,” Hudayar added. “The destruction is not just about religious persecution,” said Nurgul Sawut. She has five generations of family buried in Yengisar, in southwestern Xinjiang. “It is much deeper than that,” she said. “If you destroy that cemetery…you’re uprooting whoever’s on that land, whoever’s connected to that land,” she explained. Hudayar and Sawut could be talking about the desecration of American Indian cemeteries as well.

American Indian grave desecration grew out of brutal Indian massacres. It morphed into a pseudoscientific enterprise and then a tourist bonanza. A huge number of settlers took part in this desecration of graves, as they appropriated the land of Native peoples, up to the late twentieth century. The effect has been to eliminate the physical evidence of indigenous people from the land, to make it possible to narrate American history as if it begins with European settlement.

How we tell our history and remember our past is not so different from how we bury our dead. The past is a vast cemetery. Some of our pasts have been exalted with lavish headstones and memorialized with bronze statues or even sandblasted into the side of a mountain. These pasts dominate our historical narratives, whether in the pages of a textbook, in the popular history books on the shelves of our bookstores and libraries, in our museum exhibits and films, or cast in bronze outside our courthouses and city halls. But many other of our ancestors languish in unmarked graves. Their tombs have been desecrated. Their pasts have been plowed up and displaced.


Excerpted from After One Hundred Winters: In Search of Reconciliation on America’s Stolen Lands by Margaret D. Jacobs. Copyright © 2021 by Margaret D. Jacobs. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.