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The dilemma of Dickson Mounds

Photo by Marlin Roos, courtesy of the Illinois State Museum

The present Dickson Mounds Museum opened in 1972. This photo, taken in the late 1970s, shows the structure's distinctive, sloping sides before they were obscured by the surrounding trees.

Some 10,000 years ago, a wandering band of Paleolithic Indians reached the fertile valley at the wooded confluence of the Spoon and Illinois rivers. In the area bounded roughly by present-day Lewiston and Havana, among the rolling hills, backwater lakes and marshy river bottoms, these first inhabitants of Illinois thrived on the abundant fish and game, including exotic species like mastodon and long-horned bison. These stone-age Indians and their successors (the Archaic, Woodland and Mississippian Indians who lived, respectively, 7,000; 2,000 and 700 years ago) returned again and again to sites throughout the Illinois Valley, leaving behind a phenomenally rich trail of artifacts in the form of fishhooks, spear points and scraping knives made of finely flaked stone. From their trash heaps, or middens, we know these early Americans dined on venison and duck, and they treated their ailments with medicinal plants like horse nettle and maidenhair fern, plants still growing today on the edges of ponds and along the forest floor.

To grow up in Fulton County today is to inhabit a veritable outdoor museum: Cornfields, gardens, postholes and ditches are constantly surrendering treasures from the past. There are over 3,000 Indian mounds and village sites in Fulton County, the highest such concentration in the Midwest and one of the highest in the nation. Seemingly, there isn't a farmhouse in the region that doesn't contain a shoe box, desk drawer or curio cabinet loaded with artifacts and relics. There may be as many as 50,000 of these disinterred arrowheads, drills and pottery shards; but, unfortunately, they are forever divorced from the original sites that gave them true meaning and identity from an archaeological point of view. Prehistory is in the air, however, and this small sector of the Illinois Valley has produced a disproportionately large number of professional anthropologists, as well as amateur diggers. Most of their collective discoveries take the form of artifacts like spear points or pottery fragments. But Fulton County is richly endowed with human remains, too; and it is the disinterment, exhibition and treatment of these ancient bones that has plunged Illinois into a public policy controversy of the first order, a painfully divisive and seemingly irreconcilable conflict.

The Gordian knot at the center of this controversy was tied by the long-standing public display of Native American skeletons at Dickson Mounds and the decision by the museum staff (on January 3, 1990) to close the exhibit. This decision was followed, after much vacillation, with a counter decision by Gov. James R. Thompson (on August 16, 1990) to keep the burial display open. To understand these antipodal points of view requires a review of the attitude toward burial in American life and a deep appreciation of the major changes in recent federal legislation and national museum norms concerning the treatment of Native American burial remains. In addition, one must consider the aggrieved feelings of local citizens and the equally bruised feelings of Native Americans, both within and without the state of Illinois.

The situation at Dickson Mounds is being closely monitored by many concerned parties throughout the nation. One must

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recognize that Dickson Mounds and similar controversies elsewhere have split the community of anthropologists and field archaeologists right down the middle, with some scientists favoring closure of all such sites and others fearing that their professional raison d'être has been placed in jeopardy. Scientists who once worked collegially side by side are now cast in the role of adversaries. The dilemma of Dickson Mounds is far from being settled, Gov. Thompson's decision notwithstanding, because new federal legislation is being enacted and protesters continue to appear at the museum, almost on a daily basis. An enlightened response to this issue could well become the benchmark by which the future treatment of all Native American burial remains will be judged. In like manner, political insensitivity or outright bungling could well redound to our permanent shame.

Consciously or unconsciously, Americans approach burials and the treatment of the dead with a good deal of cultural baggage from the past. On the one hand, skeletal displays and exhibition of human remains go largely unchallenged, especially if such remains possess anthropological or historical value, like the mummies at the National Museum in Cairo, the skulls in the catacombs of ancient Rome or the "bog man" in the British Museum in London. During much of the history of the Catholic Church, bones and other body parts of saints were often placed on public display for the adoration of the faithful. Whether we realize it or not, we are all inheritors of a cultural legacy called the memento mori tradition, a heightened sensitivity to mortality that sprang up in the Middle Ages after the Black Death killed one of every three people in Europe.

Thompson's decision notwithstanding . . . federal legislation is being enacted, and protestors continue to appear at the museum, almost on a daily basis

Our cultural iconography is littered with emblems of death and the afterlife. Death itself often appears as a cloaked and hooded skeletal figure. Flags, tattoos and military insignia often draw upon death's-heads or skulls and bones for their symbolism. Tombstones in Europe and America frequently feature carved death's-heads flanked by angel wings. Even today we hang paper skeletons at Halloween time and encourage our children to don skeletal costumes. In speech we lament insufficiency with the phrase "bare bones" or say that devastating assessments "cut to the bone" or, if angry, "pick a bone" with someone or try to deal with a "bone of contention."

On the other hand, we paradoxically hold that bones are sacred and inviolable emblems of the deceased. That is why Jewish corpses were properly reburied at Nazi concentration camps after World War II. That is why we respect cemeteries (a trait we share with the plains Indians) and why we go to such expense (as Jessica Mitford showed in The American Way of Death), to embalm, clothe, eulogize, preserve and memorialize (as on Memorial Day) the honored dead. Yet we exhibit a kind of cultural schizophrenia in the matter of bones and burials because in some instances we consider the body disposable (as in cremation or in the donation of organs or entire cadavers after death). Human skeletons both real and artificial are familiar sights in the classroom, laboratory and doctor's office. But our traditions are probably no more complicated than those of the Native Americans themselves, according to Alan D. Harn, the curator of anthropology at Dickson Mounds Museum. The same mounds were often used by successive groups of Indians, so the latest burial at the top often disturbed an earlier burial underneath. Indians sometimes deliberately mistreated skeletons, and, in any event, the attitudes of protesters today are inevitably colored by Christian influences.

Dr. Don Dickson, a Fulton County chiropractor and amateur anthropologist, could hardly have anticipated the fire storm of controversy that would ultimately engulf the skeletons he carefully excavated in the most famous mounds of the Illinois Valley. According to Harn, Dickson could literally walk from the back door of his home directly onto mounds that were the product of the late Woodland and Mississippian cultures (the most famous site of the latter group being Cahokia Mounds in the East St. Louis area). The mounds that Dickson discovered and which still bear his family name date from 900 to 1250 A.D. The Dickson family claimed the land during the Civil War era, and around that time the first skeletons were detected while family members were planting an apple orchard. In 1927 Dickson began the painstaking job of uncovering the 248 skeletons that rest today at the bottom level of Dickson Mounds Museum, for the skeletons are displayed in situ, exactly in the same places where Dickson discovered them over 60 years ago. Originally, the site contained 11 mounds 10 burial mounds and a small charnel-house or mortuary mound where "buzzard men" probably scraped flesh from the skeletons and otherwise prepared them for final burial. There can be no doubt that Dickson Mounds was sacred ground, a true cemetery for the Mississippians who lived there during a period of some 400 years.

Dickson eventually built a barn-like structure over the mounds and ran his museum as a personal enterprise from 1927 to 1945, when it became a state park. Later designated as a state memorial, Dickson Mounds officially became a state museum in 1965. There is no denying Dickson's pivotal role in the understanding of Illinois history, and a sensitive presentation of his story could become an interesting part of the museum that bears his name.

About 75,000 visitors a year tour Dickson Mounds Museum, but their presence has little economic impact on the region. Most are college-educated people who live about an hour away and make a short day-trip to the museum. They may buy lunch, dinner and a few souvenirs, but they do not radically tilt the economic scales of Fulton County. Dickson Mounds is a world-

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famous instititution well worth the visit, however. American field archaeology began here in the 1930s with the arrival of scholars from the University of Chicago, an event that culminated in the classic study of Fay-Cooper Cole and Thorne Deuel, Rediscovering Illinois (1937). Dickson Mounds is also famous as a site for medical research since some 76 scholarly and research articles have been produced from research done at Dickson Mounds, and new proposals keep arriving all the time. As pointed out by Ham, the bones at Dickson Mounds represent a genetically pure population and allow us to learn new facts of genuine medical significance (like the very recent discovery that rheumatoid arthritis is genetically transmitted).

Many of these people are shocked to learn that their lifelong interest is seen as sacrilegious and even sinister by the more radical protestors . . .

Located in one of the economically depressed areas of the state (sometimes jokingly called "Forgotonia" by the locals), Dickson Mounds Museum has become a cultural icon for the region, and a justifiable source of local pride. Many people in the area knew Dr. Dickson personally and came under the influence of his philosophical aura. He deeply touched the lives of everyone who knew him, including Alan Harn, and it is sometimes difficult for local residents to separate their feelings for Dickson from the larger and deeper issues that affect the future of the museum. Many people in the area believe they have acted honorably toward all Indians living and dead. Their feelings are part of the dilemma of Dickson Mounds. Not every visitor to the museum can be dismissed as a ghoulish thrill seeker. Many of these people are shocked to learn that their lifelong interest is seen as sacrilegious and even sinister by the more radical protesters who dismiss all burial displays as sleazy side-show enterprises catering to the lowest human desires, greed and violation. In the same way, field archaeologists whose work made the museum possible and whose data continue to support the cultural anthropologists, suddenly feel confused and betrayed. They believe that their work has upheld the very people who are now turning against them, and many of these field archaeologists approach their work with a reverence conspicuously absent from many other professions. In the words of Harn, "To see the excavation is to come face-to-face with your own mortality and to ask what am I contributing. . . . [I]t makes you realize you aren't the first or most important person to look over this valley."

The tragedy of archaeologists like Harn and the many serious local residents is that federal legislation, changing attitudes toward Native Americans and, most importantly, the religious land political activism of Native American groups superseded all personal and professional concerns (no matter how sincere) and placed the whole issue on a new footing. As Robert M. Adams, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, put it, ". . . when you face a collision between human rights and scientific study, then scientific values have to take second place." Now the very ownership of Indian bones is being called into question, and practitioners of Native American religions are demanding the right to rebury their dead in a proper and fitting manner. If Illinois had possessed a large rural population of Native Americans (as in Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona), the issue would have surfaced much sooner and more gradually during the last two decades or so. As it was, a time bomb began ticking away, and it exploded nearly a year ago.

On January 3, 1990, the Illinois State Museum announced that it would close the burial exhibit, a message that stunned the residents of Fulton and nearby Mason and Peoria counties. Suddenly all the constituencies were thrown into the same arena: the museum administrators, the politicians, the scientists, the Native Americans and the local residents. One month after the dramatic announcement, over 500 people (representing most of these constituencies) assembled on a freezing February night on the Bradley University campus in Peoria for a town hall meeting that crackled with invective, especially when Michael Haney, a representative of the United Indian Nations (an Oklahoma consortium concerned with the proper disposal of skeletal remains), enraged the locals by lambasting them as "Nazis" and "country bumpkins." Prior to the Bradley meeting, the Illinois House of Representatives had passed a resolution, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Tom Homer of Canton and Bill Edley of Macomb, calling on the state to rescind its decision. After a flood of newspaper articles, three visits by Gov. Thompson to the museum and a number of Native American protests on the site, the governor announced on August 16, 1990, that the burial exhibit at Dickson Mounds would remain open.

The original decision by the Illinois State Museum to close the exhibit followed logically from the official position of the museum establishment in this country. All major museums and affiliated professional organizations had gone on record in opposition to the kind of skeletal display that made Dickson Mounds famous. The list is long and impressive, beginning at least three decades ago when the Museum of New Mexico removed its skeletons from public display. The Milwaukee Public Museum removed such remains from public view in 1972, and in 1988 the National Parks Service voluntarily adopted the same policy. In 1989 events accelerated dramatically as the flagship institutions (the Smithsonian in Washington, the Field Museum in Chicago, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the Peabody at Harvard) were all in the process of removing skeletal remains of Native Americans from their public exhibits.

Less than four months before the Dickson Mounds Museum announcement, on September 12, 1989, the Smithsonian Institution made its landmark decision to return (not merely shield from view) the skeletal remains of thousands of American Indians that could be identified with a specific tribe. The offer also included the return of associated funerary objects. The

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Smithsonian and similar museums collectively own more than 600,000 skeletal remains, but many of these skeletons cannot be linked to any particular tribe or group (so they can be retained as museum property and made available to field archaeologists who may have no other opportunities to study skeletal remains, except for accidental discoveries of skeletons during construction of roads and buildings). After the Smithsonian decision, the Mound State Museum in Moundsville, Ala., closed its two large exhibitions of American Indian burials.

A new era in Anglo-Indian relations had clearly begun, and the Illinois State Museum administrators appeared to join that new era by deciding to close the exhibit at Dickson Mounds. Their decision was supported in writing by such groups as the Sierra Club, the American Association of Museums, the Society for American Archaeology, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Air Force and, of course, many Native American groups.

Long opposed to such exhibits, Native American organizations like the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and the Indian Treaty Rights Committee (based in Chicago) formally went on record in favor of the exhibit's closure at Dickson Mounds. According to David Hilligoss, Sangamon State University professor and director of the Native American Network (a nonprofit organization), "Indians have had their eyes on Dickson Mounds for 50 years. They see it as a cynical and tragic desecration." Hilligoss advised state officials to close the burial site as early as 1983.

'Indians have had their eyes on Dickson Mounds for 50 years. They see it as a cynical and tragic desecration'

To some observers, the most significant aspect of the Dickson Mounds dilemma is the failure of the museum to maintain national museum norms. This view is held by the Illinois Historical Preservation Agency. As Judith Franke, director of Dickson Mounds, points out, "Nobody does exhibition of remains at all ... there's a domino effect. As the issue is resolved in other states, the attention focuses on those states where it remains unresolved."

The dilemma of Dickson Mounds is not merely one of saving face and staying au courant with the museum mavens. This issue of exhibiting prehistoric skeletal remains belongs in a precise legal framework that specifically addresses how Americans should revise their behavior toward grave sites of cultures earlier than our own. In 1978 the U.S. Congress unanimously passed the American Indian Freedom of Religion Act (Public Law 95-341) which quickly became a de facto prohibition against skeletal displays because it provided Indians with a legal basis to file lawsuits against museums that violate their religious beliefs through public skeletal displays. This single piece of legislation has had a profound effect on the treatment of burial remains, even though it may be little known or understood. It is with this law that even the most obdurate defender of open burial displays must contend and ultimately lose. There is no middle ground.

In 1979 the U.S. Congress passed the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA), which barred digging on federal or Indian lands without specific authorization. In 1989 Gov. Thompson himself signed the Human Grave Protection Act (Public Act 86-151), which required official permits for the excavation of prehistoric and early historic graves. The act also entrusted the Illinois State Museum with the responsibility of protecting human remains gathered in the process of excavation. But the most critical piece of legislation is the so-called "Bones Bill," which began in 1986 as a proposal by U.S. Sen. John Melcher, a conservative Montana Democrat. The most recent version, known as the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, was proposed in Congress as Senate Bill 1980, but it died on the floor without action. On October 17, 1990, however, the House version (H.R. 5237) did pass Congress and is now awaiting action by President Bush. Ownership is the underlying theme of this landmark legislation: Individuals or the state may own land that contains Native American remains, but those remains will become the property of Native Americans who can demonstrate affiliation with them. The remains can then be reburied on tribal lands, according to the prescribed religious rites of the affected tribe. As soon as the bill becomes law, Dickson Mounds will have an entirely different identity from its present one, and Native American litigants will surely recognize that fact.

Given this formal legal context already well-defined at the time of his action it is impossible to justify Gov. Thompson's final decision to keep the museum open, thus making the state liable to costly litigation. After all, he initially accepted the January decision to close the exhibit, as endorsed by Karen Witter, director of the Illinois Department of Energy and Natural Resources; R. Bruce McMillan, director of the Illinois State Museum; and Judith Franke, director of Dickson Mounds Museum. At this point all parties were most concerned about the loss of funding. All versions of the Bones Bill would deny federal funding to any universities, museums or depositories that continued to display skeletal remains of Native Americans. Gov. Thompson seems to have ignored this potential loss of funding, and that was his first mistake. But more serious ones were to follow. As a former federal prosecutor and a law professor, it was Thompson the lawyer who decided to rescind the January decision, based on his understanding of the chain of evidence linking ancient Indians to those alive today. Thompson concluded that the Mississippians "cannot be traced to any tribe of Indians in our country today. These people were unique to the culture of Illinois." Although the local Havana Hopewell and Mississippians exhibited traits that were sui generis, their ancestry and general culture derive from much larger groups, descendants of whom are alive today. Thompson was

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simply wrong, and his interpretation flies in the face of generally accepted anthropological and biological evidence. All Native Americans alive today can be traced to a common group of Asiatic nomads who crossed the Bering Sea over a temporary land-bridge created before the last ice age, according to anthropology curator Harn. We are probably within a year of proving this common ancestry of all Native Americans through the process of DNA sampling. This DNA sampling is crucial because it will show once and for all the interconnectedness of all North American Indians living and dead. A specific tribe could then establish its legal standing and make a conclusive claim on the bones at Dickson Mounds. Furthermore, Haney of the United Indian Nations believes that six tribes in Oklahoma can already prove affiliation with the Dickson Mounds Indians through tribal and historical evidence. But even more basic than either of these points is the anthropological record of the past 100 years, which shows the existence of Mississippian and Hopewell sites all over the central Mississippi and Ohio valleys. The sheer volume of physical evidence (pots, spear points, mounds and other artifacts) is overwhelming.

More important than all these scientific and legal considerations, however, is the moral and cultural context of the Dickson Mounds dilemma

More important than all these scientific and legal considerations, however, is the moral and cultural context of the Dickson Mounds dilemma. No matter how mixed our feelings about bones and burials, none of us would want a loved one's bones (those of a spouse, say, or a child) on public display; we probably would balk at the display of John F. Kennedy's bones or those of Lincoln. The essential point is the humanity of the ancient people we have wittingly or unwittingly disturbed. From the perspective of most living Native Americans, the treatment of bones at places like Dickson Mounds is sacriligeous and offensive, even if conducted for the best of scientific and educational reasons. We do not have to be Native Americans to understand these feelings. We can respond to their outrage and grief in the same way that the French public responded to all Jews living in France after vandals desecrated Jewish cemeteries. One did not have to be Jewish to register authentic feelings of outrage and grief.

It does not matter whether the Native Americans buried at Dickson Mounds lived a long time ago, or if their direct descendants can or cannot be found anywhere in America. What matters finally is their humanity and the fact that many of our fellow Americans are offended profoundly by the exhibition of these human remains. By respecting them we also respect all living Native Americans, the descendants of the ancient Woodland and Mississippian cultures who share the continent with us today. In honoring all of them, the living and the dead, we also honor everything that is worth keeping in ourselves.

For all these moral, cultural and legal reasons, the burial exhibit at Dickson Mounds should be closed now to public view, as the staff of the state museum concluded nearly one year ago. This closure should remain permanent and irrevocable. There can be no equivocation or waffling on this point, no matter how awkward or embarrassing the closure seems from an administrative or political point of view. Ethically and culturally and now legally the citizens of Illinois will have no other choice.

The actual closure can be effected with an action as simple as the locking of a hallway door, but the final disposition of the burial remains becomes still another conundrum, one more facet in the frustrating Rubik's Cube that the dilemma of Dickson Mounds has become. For we have not reached an ending but only a beginning, and there are a number of likely scenarios that will follow the closure. That closure will come about either by administrative decision (a new administration is about to take the helm), or by legal action based on suits filed by those Native American groups that have the clearest legal standing. Such litigation can and probably will  take years to run its course. No one can predict which tribe or political group will ultimately be assigned responsibility for (if not outright custody of) the bones. After this repatriation has occurred, assuming there are no countersuits by rival groups, the issue then becomes one of simple reburial, not of removal and reburial as at other sites in other parts of the country. Dr. Dickson did not move the bones; they must remain exactly where they are. But some kind of Native American purification or reburial rite will probably have to be performed before the skeletons are actually covered with soil again.

Will Dickson Mounds Museum continue to exist as a tourist attraction once the bones are sequestered and finally buried? Will the museum building itself be left standing on the site, and will there be sufficient interest to justify visiting the place? No one can claim clairvoyance in answering these pressing questions, but some interesting analogues do exist elsewhere. The Great Serpent Mound in Ohio and other Indian mounds (for example, the Marksville Mounds in Louisiana) stand without any exposed skeletal remains and still remain popular with visitors. The staff of Dickson Mounds Museum, especially Judith Franke, the director, and Sharon Santure, the program coordinator, have effectively turned the museum into a fully functioning regional cultural center, offering visitors a rich menu of special lectures and outstanding exhibits like last year's "Harvesting the River." The very history of this dilemma can  and should become part of the museum's mission, giving visitors insights into the practical application of political and ethical pressures, the fascinating story of how the majority changed its long-held opinions to accommodate the higher values and ethical beliefs of the minority. And until that noble story can be told, we will still be facing the dilemma of Dickson Mounds.

Dan Guillory, author of Living With Lincoln: Life and Art in the Heartland, is professor of English at Millikin University. He was recently a Fulbright Senior Lecturer in Gabon, West Africa.

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