Blog post #2 – Erasure, Law, Resistance


This will be a common burial-place where all shall meet on terms of common fellowship and brotherhood. Every dear relation in life, severed by death, shall be found restored again in these grounds— husband and wife, parent and child, brother and sister, shall be reunited here. Friend shall meet friend here; and enemies, too, shall meet, there enmities all forgotten. Yonder city, where, as every where in life, the harmonies of society are apt to be broken by petty feuds, by ungentle rivalries, by disturbing jealousies, by party animosities, by religious dissensions, shall, one after another, as death singles them out, send up her multitudinous population to these grounds, and here they shall take their respective places, in amiable proximity to each other, peaceful, harmonious, undisturbed and undisturbing, the same shadows deepening on them, the same sun-light over them, resting in the same hope…

~Daniel Barnard

My previous post hinted at my forays into anthropology and archaeology in the context of burial grounds. Aside from reading many papers having to do with the anthropogical history of the Virginia region, I have found many sources dealing with the problematic treatment of American Indian cultural sites by archaeologists. As I aluded to in my previous post by mentioning Jefferson’s study of a Monacan burial ground, American archaeology has historically treated American Indian burial sites as scientific curiosities. As Vine Deloria puts it in God is Red:

None of the whites could understand that they were not helping living Indians by digging up the remains of their village… The general attitude [of the archaeologists] was that they were the true spiritual descendants of the Indians and that the contemporary AIM Indians were foreigners who had no right to complain about their activities.

The actions of archaeologists that have devalued both alive and dead American Indians can be distilled into two basic problematic assumptions:

  1. The myth of the vanishing Indian, i.e. “salvage anthropology”
  2. Disrespect for indigenous cultures and societies that both provide oral history and place significant value on human remains

The resistance struggle of the Monacan people hits at both of these points. Firstly, the Monacan have been victims of “documentary genocide”, a tactic used by the state of Virginia to erase their cultural and racial difference and history that has operated via the refusal of separate classification for Indians in the state, attacks on Monacan marriage, and direct modification of birth records by racist lawmakers. Secondly, one can recieve a converse relationship with archaeologists and the Monacans: in recent times, the Monacan Nation is a site in which cooperative efforts have been made to respectfully study Monacan history.

Ideology of the Cemetery continues to have been a very valuable discovery for me. Not only does it continue to provide a convenient frame for my analysis, but also Randall H. McGuire seems to have followed practically the same morbid track of research. “The sanctity of the grave: White concepts and American Indian burials” in Conflict in the Archaeology of Living Traditions gives exactly the analysis for which I was searching. McGuire analyzes how the European conceptualization of sanctity of the grave has changed dramatically over time – from a time when bones were essentially willed to the church to the modern individualistic frame in which bones are no longer held for their spiritual significance, but instead solely for the secular purpose of providing a memorial site for friends and relatives. This norm is then placed onto American Indian burial sites, which Whites assume have no significance if there are not direct relatives living (which is, also, assumed – “vanishing Indians”), in direct contrast to the ancestral respect given to these remains which have spiritual significance in many American Indian cultures and which require burial not only for the living, but also for the dead. Furthermore, these remains (as in the case of an Iowa highway construction project which disturbed both White and American Indian graves, the White remains given to the relatives for repatriation and the American Indian remains being given to an entirely unrelated group of archaeologists) are seen as othered not only by racial concepts, but also by (racist) conceptions of “primitiveness” that temporaly other American Indians and place them and their remains in the realm of ancient study – hence archaeology.  Another work by McGuire, “Why Have Archaeologists Thought the Real Indians Were Dead and What Can We Do About It?” in Indians and Anthropologists: Vine Deloria, Jr., and the Critique of Anthropology, provides a similar analysis.

In addition to research on salvage anthropology, I read several dense papers on the topic of property law with regards to cemeteries. Property law regarding graves is very intriguing – in most cases, it gives permission for any individual related to the deceased to cross private property in order to visit graves and to restrict usage of land containing graves. With consideration of legal interpretation of such laws, this right is very significant – as Alfred L. Brophy notes, “The ancient right of the cemetery has some magical power hidden within it to rebalance the power of landowners and those whose ancestors are buried on that land.” This paper, unexpectedly, included many poetic segments, which provide evidence of the polemic and literary value of this discussion. That the most prominent anthropologists studying the dynamics of the cemetery and its sanctity are Marxists also speaks to the political significance of the topic. It is fairly clear that when a society does not treat a group’s dead with respect it is doubtful they will do so for its living.  Along with the dialogue of erasure – significantly, due to the myth of the vanishing Indian, an erasure that has suposedly already occurred – these practices of desanctification, disrespect, and objectification continue to enforce settler colonialism and cultural genocide.

This analysis is to me why such resistance is particularly important. It was a victory of great impact when the ACP changed routes to avoid the historical sites of the Monacan people, and the battles of American Indians against a White archaeology that historically refused to respect them as people are battles for liberation of living people as well as dead ones, such as the tale of several Native Hawaiian men who entered the Smithsonian Institution on demands to see the bones of their ancestors, picked up the boxes of these bones and left with the message “We’ll be taking these home now”.

The fight for the past is a battle that takes place in the present.