A commonsense definition of “country” is a land inhabited by a particular people. Is the United States of America a country anymore?
Robert Frost, our last truly national poet, expressed the idea of a people “belonging to the land” in a poem written for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. He acknowledged the sometimes rough and violent origins of our nation, but never questioned the fact of American nationhood:
THE GIFT OUTRIGHT
The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.
This familiar poem, written only a few decades ago, is now a little strange to read because its central premise, that there is a “we” who possess a particular land, no longer feels true. Are “we” the mosaic of all the races and languages of the world now presented by our public institutions as “America”? Is this increasingly crowded land with its host of competing religious and ethnic groups still “our” land?
An exploration of the theme of “pioneers” and the “frontier” in American culture reveals the importance of the physical territory, the land, of a nation. Thus one issue that appeared of its own accord in my previous discussion of David Crockett was the dispossession of land from the Indians. It was not, of course, my intention to promote white guilt over past treatment of Indians or any other group. Real and imagined injustices perpetrated by whites against nonwhites are used in such a poisonous way today that it would probably be better not to teach about them at all than to teach them as is done now. Still, if we dip into the American experience prior to the 20th century, the memory of the Indian presence is so strong that it is impossible to ignore. Not for their sake, but for ours, we should remember how our encounter with them shaped us as a people. In understanding is strength.
Ancient Mystery, Recent Forgetfulness
One of the mysteries of our land is the people who inhabited it in ancient times. The Midwestern United States, where I grew up, is the site of numerous Indian burial mounds and earthworks built between about 3000 B.C. and the 16th century A.D. A number of excellent museums also exist that display artifacts and explain what is known about the people that created the mounds, mostly through archaeology. Here is the site of an excellent museum in David Crockett’s home state.
When I was a child my parents took me to a famous Indian mound park, and I still remember my feeling of speechless awe as I gazed at these simple yet profound structures. I also remember that the museum displayed items excavated from the mounds, including several human skeletons. This summer I returned to the museum for the first time in decades. The exhibits had improved dramatically, with beautiful, sophisticated recreations of scenes from the various cultures that inhabited the area in succession. (One fact I was reminded of was that the Indians we associate with particular American places were often relatively recent arrivals, and themselves knew little about the ancient earthworks.) But the skeletons were gone. I asked one of the curators what had happened to them, and she said that they had been removed many years ago to one of the state historical institutions for safekeeping. She stated what I already knew, that displaying “native” remains is too sensitive an issue nowadays.
What bothered me was not so much that the remains had been removed, but that the fact that these bones had once been displayed, and why they had been removed, was nowhere indicated. Why would the museum suppress its own history?
The Fraud of “Repatriation” to Indians
In a remarkable article in the journal Academic Questions, “Scholarship vs. Repatriationism” (1), and in a shorter article on the website Friends of America’s Past, attorney and professor James W. Springer reveals exactly what is going on behind the “return” of non-European human remains and other artifacts to self-designated representatives of the “indigenous” peoples of North America. The issue is what he calls “repatriationism,” the idea that living American Indians should have exclusive custody of prehistoric remains and that the interpretation of such remains should be made to confirm to traditional Indian beliefs. As in every area of American life, aggressive claims ungrounded in facts or fairness are being made by minority groups against the institutions and practices of the historic American people, and the targets of those claims are, by and large, surrendering to those demands. Not only that, this surrender is institutionalized in government agencies and legal decisions.
Springer’s article demonstrates well that any time anti-Western forces are given power in our society, our legitimacy as a people and our very ability to pursue and speak the truth is undermined. He writes:
…[The] ideology of repatriationism, often promoted by those with academic backgrounds, has attacked the entire basis of natural science and genuine scholarship, and sought to replace it with a combination of racial collectivism, animistic religion, and postmodernist ideology…. It has been endorsed, perhaps unwittingly, by the United States Congress and the President of the United States; and it is in a position to demand that scholars defer to its dictates, or be deprived of the information that is essential to their work. (p. 6)
Springer discusses the study of human remains, and the amazing wealth of knowledge it can bring us, especially with sophisticated techniques currently being developed. Human bones teach us about demography, diet, disease and accidents, amount and type of violent conflict, biological relationships between populations, and attitudes toward the dead. Of course, such knowledge is almost entirely the product of Western science, just as much of our knowledge of the Indian mounds comes from the labors of Americans who excavated them from the 18th century onward. (In fact, the very existence of many mounds was only revealed when settlers cleared the forests.)
None of this matters to the repatriationists, who want to deprive European Americans of all access to these remains. Springer describes three streams of repatriationism, which assert the following. (1) “[N]o matter how scientific, scholarly, and objective [researchers] may claim to be…traditional methods of analysis are racist, and the racist taint cannot be overcome except by embracing repatriationism.” (2) The attempt to use conventional methods of history, archaeology, and the like cannot give genuine knowledge of the Indian past. This can only come from individuals who are “genetically and culturally Indian,” and from the perspective of traditions involving “spirits, the supernatural, the creation of the world, and the origin of the tribe.” In particular, concerning human remains, “the spirits of the dead are disturbed when their bodies are not buried or are disinterred. An Indian can sense such spirits and their disturbance. One who handles human remains will be punished by the spirits of the dead with illness or death.” (3) American Indian tribes are sovereign nations that should have control over their cultural heritage, including all human remains, whether or not these are the ancestors of any living individuals. (p. 12-13)
Springer then discusses recent laws that have been used to enforce repatriationism, most notably the National Museum of the American Indian Act of 1989, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990. What he describes is alarming. Essentially, Native American religious, tribal, and political organizations have the power to demand that institutions hand over human remains to them, and it appears that tens of thousands of skeletons have been thus handed over. These tribes then do as they please with the remains, not only reburying them but doing such things as ritually burning plant materials with the bones, thus contaminating them with modern DNA and ruining the possibility of further study.
Springer shows that one motivation of the contention over Indian remains is that scientific study of these remains often contradicts Indian oral traditions regarding their own origins. For instance, a tribe that claims to have lived in a land forever may have actually migrated there only recently. And as far as treatment of the dead is concerned, Indian mutilation of the bodies of enemies is well-documented by archaeology, and even burial of kin could involve practices like pushing aside the older remains to make way for the newer. More importantly, Springer refutes the idea that white “racism” has generally led scientists to disrespect Indian remains. In fact, Caucasoid remains have often been displayed and photographed, with the deceased individuals sometimes being named. Springer suggests that the celebrated “Ice Man” of ca. 3300 B.C., now on public display in Italy, would have been destroyed or otherwise hidden from scholars had he been found in a glacier in the United States. (p. 26)
Giving Ourselves Outright
The sorry story of the repatriation movement shows once again the ubiquitousness of the assault against Western civilization. In this case, our identity and culture are attacked not directly, but indirectly through the attack on our traditions and practices of scientific and historic inquiry. Concessions to minority interest groups out of goodwill or desire to avoid conflict lead inexorably to greater and greater demands that soon come to have great political significance, such as the Hawaiian sovereignty movement or the ceding of oil fields to Indian tribes in Canada.
George Orwell has said something to the effect that no aesthetic experience is possible to someone who is hungry or ill. Similarly, we Americans will not be able to look with joy and wonder at our land, whether our beautiful natural scenes or the ancient Indian earthworks, when we no longer possess it. I don’t know the answer, and I don’t think Robert Frost meant it this way, but the time has come to once again give ourselves outright for our nation. We still have strong ties to our land, so let us keep in mind its rich history, and ours, as we look for ways to rebuild.
(1) James W. Springer, “Scholarship vs. Repatriationism,” Academic Questions, vol. 19, no. 1 (2005-6), 6-36.