Battle of the bones

The tiny cranial fragments appear as frail as eggshell. A child’s lower jaw, clutches of rib bones, and a few vertebrae sit in plastic baggies. Each group is marked, stained by time, or possibly, cigarette smoke.

More than 70 years ago, as archeology came out of its infancy, these bones – and many more like them – were cut loose from the desert several miles west of Del Rio. In their day, they belonged to members of bands of hunter-gatherers roaming across South Texas and the Trans-Pecos region.

The desert scrub was their supermarket; the rocky arroyos and outcroppings safe shelter in a world of thorns and sharp rock.

Collections manager Amy Fulkerson places a broad blue box on the table between us.

“Without these, we wouldn’t know anything about these people,” she says.

Across the top of the box is written:

Human Remains
41W112, Shumla #1
Infants (4?)

Just a few teeth protrude from these dollhouse mandibles. The unsealed fissures of the cranial shards evoke in me – even at this state of reduction – a protective parental instinct.

“Today is the first time that I have opened one of these boxes for someone who is not a scholar,” my guide says, removing another box from the shelf.

Archeologists consider such bones irreplaceable in their quest to understand humanity’s common history. The bones are tools that will only increase in value as the scientific techniques used to unlock their secrets improve.

For the 50-plus Native Americans and activists that converged on the Witte last weekend, marching, drumming, and singing, the 1930s excavation from the Shumla site represents a sacrilege. To this group, the continued holding of the bones, as well as the ongoing handling they receive, represent the continuation of genocidal practices aimed at wiping out Indian culture.

“They’ve had their land taken away from them. There’s been an effort to take away their culture, their religion, their language, and now they’re even taking their dead,” said Milo Colton, a St. Mary’s University pre-law advisor and regional counsel for the Civil Rights Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Colton advised Marie Crabb, the student president of the school’s Native American Student Association, who launched the current protest.

Crabb wasn’t brought up “traditional.” That is, she wasn’t raised as a Mescalero Apache. It was only later that she began to teach herself the language, the dances, and the songs of her ancestors. Over the years, she has learned much, becoming an accomplished pow-wow dancer. And, now, an outspoken activist.

Her interest inspired annual trips to Seminole Canyon State Park, where enigmatic rock art dating back thousands of years colors the walls of much-visited cliff shelters.

It was there she first heard about the excavation of nearby graves and how the remains were moved to the Witte. For a variety of reasons – call it her awakening – hearing that fact again last summer set off an alarm.

“There’s a connection. You feel a connection to those bodies that are there,” said Crabb. “And you feel that there’s something wrong because they’re `at the Witte` and they’re not where they’re supposed to be, which is in the ground.”

A photo her brother took during a pow-wow at the Witte in 2002, she says, shows human remains being displayed inside the museum. The image of the grown body with legs and arms drawn into the fetal position, took on new and grotesque meanings for her.

“When I got it developed, I had no idea what it was. I didn’t put two and two together until I went down on this last trip.”

It was Crabb’s group that started a letter-writing campaign last month. For weeks they have written the museum’s president requesting the return of the remains from Seminole. And for weeks they have also refused to meet directly with President and CEO Marise McDermott.

“This usually is a very fruitful and wonderful discussion, if you can get past that polarity,”
McDermott said.

When first alerted to last weekend’s planned protest, McDermott became agitated. Asked about the number of human remains held by the Witte, that agitation increased.

“There’s several bundle burials, but, they’re not — you can’t really talk about it like that,” she said. “No. A couple of them are. But it’s not like that. They’re not like bodies. You know what I mean? They’re not like that. It’s part of forensic anthropology … It’s part of excavation.”

A brief survey of archeologists across the state found a range of feelings about Native peoples and their continuing efforts at repatriation. Some resent the efforts of so-called non-affiliated groups, or “Pan-Indians,” who they say make a lot of unsubstantiated noise. At the other end are those that make daily, conscious efforts to work on those projects that the tribes themselves take interest in — and steer completely clear of human remains.

Of course, when it comes to today’s sometimes-uneasy relationship between the scientific and indigenous communities, things have been worse.

Little more than 100 years ago, contemporary Native American gravesites were sometimes emptied as quickly as tribes could be moved from one reservation to the next, the skulls, particularly prized, filling dusty collection rooms at prestigious East Coast universities and a wealth of museums.

It wasn’t until 1990 that federal law gave recognized tribes a way to reclaim not only their cultural effects but the bones of their ancestors. However, the North American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, has a gaping hole at its core that makes implementation in Texas extraordinarily difficult. By law, before any remains may be returned, there must first be a federally recognized tribe to return them to.

With remains such as the children from Seminole, which Witte officials say date back between 2,000 and 4,000 years, finding a direct descendent may not be possible.

Only one of three recognized tribes in the state – the Tigua Indians – have roots in Texas that predate the Spanish invasion. And only five percent of the 215,000 self-identified Native Americans in the state are members of federally recognized tribes, Colton says.

The concept of a tribe itself is a Western notion for many Native Americans.

“Texas is poorly educated when it comes to their own history. Especially, when it comes to the history of the indigenous people in Texas,” said Juan Mancias, tribal chair of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation of Texas. “And that’s not going to change unless people start really putting out what the truth is.”

Mancias, a local representative of the American Indian Movement’s state chapter, has been working actively on issues of native justice for 20 years. For the past 10, he’s been guiding a federal tribal application for the Carrizo Nation through Washington’s Department of the Interior.

He knows the strict requirements are stacked against him. It’s a point the head of the archeology program at the University of Texas agrees with.

“I sort of feel I can see both sides, to some extent,” said Samuel Wilson, chair of the UT archeology department. “To go by the letter of the law seems to work against native peoples, because there aren’t very many groups with federal recognition, and Texas has the seventh-largest native population of any state.”

Under current conditions, questions of tribal affiliation are, in most cases, “insoluable,” he said.

UT works closely with the Caddo Nation in all of its excavation work. Human remains are not disturbed, and culturally sensitive sites are uncovered with remote sensing equipment rather than traditional shovels and trowels.

“Potentially, there could be a really strong relationship between archeologists and native groups, but we have a lot of work to do to repair that damage,” Wilson said.

But not all researchers are interested in seeking more amicable tribal relationships when weighed against the perceived detriment of their work.

One Anglo archeologist who asked not to be named said that most problems come from “the wannabe’s, the people that look like you and me.” He feared for the future of science if Native pressures cause researchers to “roll over” and leave history to “folklore.”

He added that modern-day claims to remains such as those stored at the Witte are more than problematic.

“It’d be kind of like me `saying`, ‘I had ancestors that came from Switzerland,’ and try to claim the Ice Man or something that was 5,000 years ago,” he said.

However, Mancias’s connection is considerably stronger than that.

The life and death of the Ice Man, a 5,300-year-old mummified body found on the high-altitude border of Italy and Austria (a good distance from Switzerland), have been unraveled almost exclusively by studying his remains. Considerably younger, the children of Seminole canyon can be understood through a historic lens.

Though not federally recognized, the Carrizo People are known to have ranged across the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Mancias says they were also living in the Big Bend area along the Rio Grande.

He recently found a historic document detailing a massacre at the Devil’s River, which flows within miles from the Seminole park, that quotes a relative of his great-great grandmother when speaking about the massacre and nearby railroad construction.

“He says, ‘Now my people will die by another,’” Mancias says. That, for Mancias, links his people in time and space to the location of the Seminole gravesites.

While Marie’s photograph turned out to be a fiberglass replica of an Egyptian burial still on exhibit at the Witte, it helped her connect with other groups, including AIM’s State Chapter President David Ortiz.

“Those spirits traveled to the other side a long time ago,” Ortiz said of the remains in the Witte collection. “They’re watching and they’re listening and seeing what we’re doing here. What we’re doing here and what we plan to do, everything that we’re doing is for them.”

As I gaze over the boxes stacked in the Witte’s collections room, I ask how many human remains are stored here.

“It’s hard to confirm how many individuals we have,” Fulkerson says. Eventually, however, she settles on the number that McDermott quoted to me: Eight.

But as I page through the federally required inventory of known human remains being held, I see evidence of many more than that.

There are “culturally unidentifiable” teeth washed to the surface by storm surge in the 1930s; three mandibles from Nueces County; a skull from Brewster County; an infant swaddled in Red fox skin; two more mandibles and a half dozen skulls and “partial” craniums from Val Verde County; an “almost complete” young adult female; a long list of craniums from Bexar and Llano counties. And I’m just a few pages into the inch-thick document.

Though the back pages of the document hold many entries about beads and jewelry made of human bone, it is not hard to see as many as 50 or more individuals represented in this document.

Studying these bones has led to the publication of a soon-to-be-updated book about the Indians of the Trans-Pecos. It also promises to be a public-relations miasma for the foreseeable future.

“All we’re asking is that the museum restore the Indian remains … for a respectful burial,” Colton says. “And the second thing we want to ask them is to stop digging up our people. It’s time to have a different attitude toward Indians. We’re human beings, too.”

Witte officials say they have not been involved in any excavation work since the 1980s.

“We’re cooperating under the law,” McDermott said. “We’re doing what we’re supposed to do and what we’ve always done for 20, 30 years, and has worked very well.”

Mancias does not expect an early or easy resolution to his grievance.

“I’m thinking about doing it by the old ways, doing a vigil,” he says. “I know the old ways and I’m going to get under their skin.”

That campaign may include calling on a federally recognized tribe to take the lead or even having his own DNA tested in an effort to confirm lineage, but it will most certainly include many more Saturday appearances outside the museum seeking the return of the collection of bones.

Says Mancias: “I realize I only have one duty in life, and that’s to make White Man as uncomfortable as possible. And that’s by saying, ‘I’m still here.’” •

Old film reel on display at Witte Museum about 1930s gravesites excavation (with piano!).

Scroll to read more San Antonio News articles
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.