Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.
On November 23, the US Department of the Interior announced that, as of five days prior, the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Indian Tribe had control over the human remains and funerary artifacts uncovered in 1940 in Nevada’s Spirit Cave. Previously, this control had been held by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and its transfer to the tribe came after years of legal battles. The remains in question include, significantly, the Spirit Cave mummy, the oldest known mummy from North America. The 10,600-year-old man was found shrouded in woven reed mats and a rabbit-skin blanket in August 1940 in a cave east of Fallon, Nevada, near Grimes Point (the exact location is protected by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979).
In a release, US Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell stated:
Returning the remains and objects found at Spirit Cave to the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe is an example of the Administration’s commitment to work with Native American governments in coming together to resolve issues.
BLM Director Neil Kornze added that his organization has “consulted extensively with the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe in recent years regarding the Spirit Cave Assemblage” and “are pleased that we have found resolution for transfer of the remains and objects and are able to hand over these important cultural items to the Tribe.”
Nature reported in December that “genetic analysis has proved that the skeleton is more closely related to contemporary Native Americans than to other global populations.” The journal also noted that some scientists were not enthused by the decision, including anthropologist and Spirit Cave researcher Richard Jantz, who said it was “just a sad day for science. We will lose a lot of information about the history of human occupation in the Americas as a consequence.” While genetic analysis and carbon dating have provided an impressive amount of data on the mummy, there may still more to study in these rare remains from an incredibly early human period in North America.
The Spirit Cave mummy was not the only ancient human consigned to a Native American tribe in 2016. The November decision followed one concerning the 9,000-year-old Kennewick Man, who was identified in 1996 in Washington and transferred in September to the Columbia River tribes for reinterment. Both of these people were once kept in museum storage, with the Spirit Cave Mummy at the Nevada State Museum and the Kennewick Man at the Burke Museum in Seattle.
No one knew that the Spirit Cave mummy, resting in a sealed box on museum shelves, was so old until the 1990s. Archaeologists Sydney and Georgia Wheeler were working for the Nevada State Parks Commission in the early 1940s to examine an area of the Northern Nevada Desert being wrecked by guano mining. They found a partially mummified man who they thought was between 1,500 and 2,000 years old. He was one of two burials wrapped in tule reed matting in the cave, joined by some 67 artifacts.
Like so many discoveries made in museums, it took the right moment of scientific attention and technology to reveal that the mummy was actually 10,600 years old. In 1994, the remains were carbon dated, giving the Spirit Cave mummy his status as the oldest North American mummy. Both of the Wheelers died before the significance of their find was revealed.
The Paiute-Shoshone Tribe’s first claim of cultural affiliation with the mummy came in 1997, under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Until 2016, the tribe had no success. For example, a 2000 determination by the BLM stated that “the remains from Spirit Cave are unaffiliated with any modern individual, tribe, or other group and are therefore culturally unidentified.”
As Samuel J. Redman chronicles in his 2016 book Bone Rooms, there was a real frenzy to exhume remains from the American West in the 19th and early 20th centuries, often with little regard for the indigenous people who lived in these areas. “At almost every turn, however, the grand vision laid out by the early founders of these collections — who claimed that secrets of racial evolution would be laid bare in the scientific examination of human bodies — seemed to veer further off course,” Redman writes. “Grave robbing, scientific racism, and ethnocentrism ultimately damaged the reputations of museums and scientists on a global scale.”
The removal of the Spirit Cave mummy came a little while after this craze, and the Kennewick Man much later, yet both cases highlight the ongoing need for American museums to address the issue of human remains in their collections. The process of returning these remains has been slow. For instance, the Smithsonian Institution repatriated the brain of Ishi, a Yahi Indian, only in 2000; the Field Museum waited until 2014 to return three Tasmanian Aboriginal remains acquired in the 19th century. The transfers of the Spirit Cave mummy and the Kennewick Man may indicate a shift in institutional attitudes. They’re also reminders of the continued debate between guarding human remains for science and cultural respect.
“Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants—11.3 per 1,000 black babies, compared with 4.9 per 1,000 white babies, according to the most recent government data—a racial disparity that is actually wider than in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery, when most black women were…
In 1850, when Dr. Robert W. Gibbes commissioned J. T. Zealy to make daguerreotypes of persons held in slavery in and around Columbia, South Carolina, for Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz to use in support of his theory that African people were a separate species, daguerreotypes were at the height of fashion.
Works by Rodolfo Abularach, Mario Bencomo, Denise Carvalho, Pérez Celis, Entes, and Agustín Fernandéz are on view at the NYC gallery through January 7, 2022.
he ownership of images has a long and nuanced legal history, which has evolved dramatically in recent years as cultural standards and photographic technologies have rapidly advanced
Renty and his daughter Delia. Renty was an enslaved African, kidnapped from the Congo, sold and forced into slave labor on the South Carolina plantation of B.F. Taylor
“Ecosystem X,” an art-based reimagining of life on planet Earth, is the theme of this open call. 10 artists will win $5,000 and one student will receive $5,000 as a scholarship/stipend.
The show, which honors the 50th anniversary of an exhibition history once ignored, continues a series of projects documenting Wilmington’s contemporary art scene.
As a scholar of African American history and photography whose work has focused on the status of violent images in museums and archives, I fully support the validity of Ms. Tamara Lanier’s claim and the amicus brief.
The daguerreotypes of Renty Taylor, Delia, Drana, Alfred, Jack, George Fassena, and Jem remained in an unused storage cabinet until 1975, when it was discovered by an employee of the Peabody Museum.
I am writing in support of the amicus curiae brief submitted by Professor Ariella Aïsha Azoulay of Brown University for the full restitution of the daguerreotypes of Renty Taylor and his daughter Delia, currently held by Harvard University, to their familial descendant, Tamara Lanier.