It is presumably time that I make my first blog post. Here, I hope to detail three things:
- My renewed understanding of struggles for liberation and sovereignty thanks to the educational work of Sierra’s SPROG
- Notices through preliminary research of the history of disrupted human remains for marginalized communities
- Randall H. McGuire’s “Ideology of the Cemetery” as it relates to the previous two items
From July 26th to August 2nd, I attended the Sierra Student Coalition’s Summer Program (SPROG), an activist training camp that gives broad training in the ideals of organizing and anti-oppression. My experiences there relate to my project for several reasons. Firstly, my understanding of the term “ally” has been further solidified as a term that is more and more appropriated by privileged persons with little engagement in actual liberatory struggle. Secondly, I have been given a look into the power of intentional communities and intentional culture. The significance of this second expansion is that I have a renewed sense of sovereignty. I will not pretend that this relates to sovereignty in the indigenous context, but I think this was an important development for me. Living in a space in which people are actually connected in the way that a nation-state supposes them to be was a powerful experience for me.
Having completed SPROG, I returned and began work on research fairly immediately. Preliminary research focused on three things: Monacan burial grounds, treatment of American Indian remains by whites, and concurrent destruction of historical cemeteries for African-Americans. A very important discovery: Thomas Jefferson is considered the “father of American archaeology” because of his excavation of a Monacan burial mound at which he had seen members of the Monacan tribe mourning some weeks previous. From the beginning, American Indian bodies, dead or alive, have not been assigned the same worth as those of whites (by him who proclaimed that “all men are created equal”). Another paper suggests that the extent of Monacan landholdings were previously marked by these burial mounds — an important note in terms of erasure of their history — not only does destruction of mounds mean desecration of bodies and erasure of their time here, it also means a rewriting of spatiality to match with the property claims of settler-colonialism. The next portion of my research concerned attempts to protect American Indian graves, essentially only the legislative act NAGPRA (Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act). Many of the stories here concerned refusal by institutions to return the exhumed skeletons of ancestors to their people. Direct action and assertions of sovereignty are beautifully laid out here, including a story in which several Native Hawaiians entered the Smithsonian, demanded to see the remains of their ancestors, and promptly left with the boxes, proclaiming “We’ll be taking these home now”. Research on African-American cemeteries finds a similar disregard for historical, cultural, and intrapersonal value of buried bodies of people of color. Construction, uncaring property owners, and lack of legal recognition for public rights to cemeteries have wreaked havoc on these graveyards.
Finally, I found an ideological frame for my paper. Randall H. McGuire’s “Ideology of the Cemetery” uses a Marxist definition of ideology and anthropology to investigate the cemeteries of a New England county. While one would expect monuments to correlate in size and extravagance with wealth, McGuire shows how ideology acts as an obfuscatory force that, when interrogated, can show us the trends of living society through examination of the dead. He examines how, during the early 19th century, the cemetery denied the existence of inequity in the communities who buried their dead there via non-extravagant, highly regular tombstones. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these inequalities were naturalized and thus gravestones were exaggerated monuments to individual success in the age of social darwinism. The mid to late 20th century gravestones deny entirely the qualitative difference between individuals through standardized plaques, a replication of the message that “in the society of consumers all can succeed”.
How is a New England cemetery record relevant to American Indian and African-American burial grounds? The key is in McGuire’s conception of ideology. If the cemetery tells a historical record, what does it mean for us to destroy it? If a cemetery reveals ideology’s handling of inequality, then what does it say that some cemeteries, instead of being given the egalitarian tombstone of the early 19th century to erase inequity, are simply erased themselves?
McGuire, in the introduction of his paper, notes: “The dead speak in the cemeteries of Broome County through the memorials that they have left behind. The dead, or their kin, raised these memorials as deliberate expressions of their ideals concerning death, class, and family. They were intended to establish and perpetuate a dialogue with the living, a dialogue that the dead hoped would reinforce the beliefs and worldview that they took to their graves.” I am sure that this is a cross-cultural analysis of burial practice. I want to investigate what is meant in these other cultures that I am studying, and what it has meant when we have erased their voices once again in death as if erasure in life were not enough.