Crimes and misdemeanors of the diggers

If you ever took an archeology class in college or are a fan of channels like National Geo or PBS, then you’re very familiar with archeological digs by both “professionals” and treasure hunters. I’ve been angry about these digs and the diggers for some time, especially the “scientists,” as there has always been a great power differential between the diggers and the digged-up when we’re talking about human remains and cultures.

Just the other night I watched a program about Native American remains being dug up by an archeologist. The bones are taken back into universities and labs and manipulated so that the age of those remains, and any artifacts found with them can be added to the scientific calendar of life. This has been given great legitimacy over the years, ‘a science equal to any other’, as they have chanted for a hundred years, and so are now believed. The Good-Housekeeping Seal of Science Approval stamped and sealed by the “community” of academics.

Yet what if the tables were turned? What if a Native American university decided to do a dig of white folk’s former lives and cultures? What if a dig were set up where your people were buried or had lived, with those who knew nothing of their true lives, their inner struggles, their loves and the last words they spoke to their children? What if Black Americans at an Historically Black College or University decided to do a dig in the back yard of southern white folk’s still existing plantation, focusing on the graveyards of the whites, and the garbage piles, often a source of all kinds of cool stuff that tells archeologists loads of things; like what those folks ate, drank, wore, even died from; and cooler yet, how they killed others (hey, we found a whip! Woo hoo! That tells us they must have used it on someone! Never knew that before, but now there’s PROOF!). For that matter, what if students from China came over to the U.S. and did the same thing? Wouldn’t some feel that was just incredibly intrusive, disrespectful and be up in arms that foreigners had come in and dug up their peeps? And perhaps worse, were saying all kinds of things about them?

For at least 125 years, whites have used their power differential in their own countries and in other people’s countries to dig up the dead, in the name of science of course. These “professionals” put science above ethics despite what they might say about how respectful they now are with human remains, since their come-to-Jesus moment only about 15-20 years ago. Now they “consult” tribal leaders when they find remains, but they don’t stop digging, or stop picking apart skulls and leg bones and ribs of babies and grandmothers alike. They are joyful when they find an old shoe or a carved doll or an arrowhead or medicine bag. It tells them so much, they say, excitedly. It sure does. It tells the people living today that you really don’t give a shit about who they are or were or you wouldn’t be destroying burial grounds just to fucking date the dirt or the year these people moved to the area. There are more important things to understand about a culture than what year they killed the damn buffalo, the bones of which surround a human being’s remains.

Almost worse: when Native American tribes seek to get these remains and artifacts back from museums, including those of the highest prestige, they more often than not are given nothing back; or perhaps a few odds and ends of things that are not deemed as significant. Hmmm, kind of sounds like how Jewish people feel when they attempt to get their families’ stolen art back from German museums, something that is full of barriers and often is a dead end, despite proof of provenance. Imagine that feeling: the most evil regime ever continuing to torture the ancestors of those who they tried to completely destroy by genocide. I see a pattern here. Abuse by domination from a ruling “authority.”

Besides the grave diggers, there are also the cultural anthropologists, who dig into existing cultures and tell us intimate things about peoples and tribes in which they don’t belong. One instance I remember from my university anthropology class was an assigned reading about a scientist who gave intimate details about one of the main tribes in Zimbabwe. Even as a dumb undergraduate, I was appalled that it seemed okay that he wrote of a boy and girl exchanging pubic hair as a so-called cultural mating norm. Again, flip the tables and have an African scientist come to America and describe the sexual mores and acts of our white teenagers today, in academic journals read by thousands or more. Do you think that their white American parents, their pastors, their politicians would think this was cool because it’s all in the name of science? The African cultural anthropologist could say, ‘We know everything about these adolescents by these sexual tidbits. Done by science, so verified and true.’

Sometimes science is surprised when tribal oral history actually mirrors what the archeologists or geologists tell us was going on hundreds or thousands of years ago. Isn’t that somewhat revealing? It should tell us that we ought to listen to these verbal historical records and give credence to them. But no, scientists say those are just old wives’ tales and cute creation stories. And if they happen to match the scientific truths, then gosh, how interesting, but still not truly relevant, and god-forbid, never the match for science. It’s not proof. We need a skull for proof.

Where am I going with today’s rant? Just one short sentence: Stop fucking desecrating human beings in the name of science. Putting another notch in the historical record is NOT more important than respect for the people’s who came before us, whether they were buried 80 years ago or 800 or 8,000. Use your vaunted science to find another way to study the past. Picking at bones that were under the soft, wrinkled, sweet skin of a great-great-great-great grandmother of a tribal member must stop. Or better yet, go pick at your own peeps shit if you must pick, or let another country’s scientists do it if you don’t have the stomach for it. Bring your Pepto-Bismol. You’re gonna need that pink shit.

From Lady Proverbs, somewhere on the Oregon Coast.

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