This essay is one of a series of “Participant Observations” on the removal of the Samuel Morton Cranial Collection from public display and legacies of scientific racism in museums. Read more reflections from this series here.

The ideological claims and scientific practices that transformed Indigenous Native American bodies into public specimens emerged from racial prejudices that colonized both the living and the dead. Philadelphia physician Samuel George Morton inferred that European “conquering invaders” had some measurable innate superiority over the “aboriginal races.”[1] His efforts inspired other researchers, who manipulated dead bodies to support their search for evidence of a social hierarchy that placed white Europeans topmost. This research was considered necessary: as Franz Boas put it, “It is most unpleasant work to steal bones from a grave, but what is the use, someone has to do it.”[2]

During the salvage anthropology era, the archaeological search for the remains of the Indigenous dead was particularly popular in the American northeast. Antiquarian impulses and scientific curiosities alike could be satisfied by collecting and, in effect, colonizing the dead by claiming them as the rightful property of colonial settler descendants. Colleges tutored their white students to join in the hunt for Indigenous bones, and local newspapers enthusiastically announced these archaeological expeditions:

Professor Wilder and his assistant Miss Whipple of Smith College went over to North Hadley on Saturday to dig for Indian skeletons on the lot of L.P. Bullard, north of the village. They obtained permission to dig from Harvard College, which has the option on the skeleton business… They brought the skeletons to the college, where they will be used in the zoology department, over which the skeleton hunters preside.[3]

The afterlives of the Native dead continued in their unwilling conscription into museum service, in disarticulated scattering to Boston or Philadelphia anatomical collections, or (as I have had the distinctly unpleasant experience of learning firsthand) in silent decoration on the mantlepieces of colonial settler descendants. At Smith College and other academic institutions, complete skeletons were constructed into displays positioning Indigenous bodies alongside the remains of African and Euro-Americans to demonstrate relative degrees of social and physical fitness; these displays persisted well into the twentieth century.[4]

The ethical and political implications of these scientific practices, and the social oppressions they reflected, were justified as seeking universal knowledge.[5] Yet the danger that racialized theories posed to Black and Brown people cannot be over-emphasized. Pronouncements of their supposed biological inferiority vis-à-vis European colonizers were used to justify enslavement, military attacks, westward expansion, boarding schools, disease epidemics, vigilante justice, invasive medical procedures, and other genocidal and ethnocidal actions of North American nations, institutions, and individuals. Skewed representations do more than merely distort the past; they interfere with human rights in the present, when the “archaeologizing” of the dead is implicated in the political vanishing of the living. 

Injustice can persist even in legislative attempts to resolve the problems. Take, for example, the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Although this law was designed to facilitate the return of human remains and heritage, it also litigates identities and rights, by empowering museums to manage the afterlives of Indigenous people who lived and died before the United States even came into existence. How do we proceed when past tribal identities do not perfectly align with present ones? Who decides to what tribes the dead belong?

And then there are the logistics of attempting to re-assemble scattered collections. Under NAGPRA, museums are compelled to address collections in their possession or under their control, but they are not obligated to divulge institutional secrets, or to delve into related collections elsewhere.[6] In practice, secrecy persists, since so many museums are “focused on controlling information despite the aura of transparency that surrounds them as institutions that serve the public interest.”[7]

Speaking from my own experience (while serving from 2003-2010 as the Five College Repatriation Research Liaison for Amherst and Smith Colleges), I found it necessary to track the collectors as much as the collections. This painstaking work entailed cross-referencing archaeological field notes, inventories, craniometric records, faculty correspondence, and secretive departmental oral traditions (including stories of bones hidden in faculty offices). The process also required considerable inter-institutional diplomacy, to track materials that moved through multiple institutions. I followed each piece of evidence forward, from the moment of excavation, through processes of disarticulation, along various trajectories of sale and circulation, to the end-point of curation. I also compiled reports on “missing remains” that, despite being well-documented on paper, were no longer physically present in the collections.[8]

With these thoughts in mind, I return to the Morton Collection, where the work of repatriation is underway: out of the more than 1,000 crania in the collection, over 100 have already been repatriated under NAGPRA. Similar efforts have, however, been slow for over 50 crania of enslaved Africans caught up in the frenzy of collecting. What of the other Native individuals in the Morton Collection who have not yet returned home? Did the eight skulls with “Narragansett” inked on their foreheads (#950-957, collected by Rhode Island’s Dr. Usher Parsons in 1840) come from the same graves excavated by Dr. Wilder in the 1920s (some of which were missing their heads)? And how can we possibly reconcile the violence, before and after death, to the Lenape woman (#1264), said to have been “massacred by the whites,” before her cranium was sent to Morton’s Collection?[9]

Recent outcries have compelled the Penn Museum to remove these remains from the glass cases of the classroom built to house them, but I am oddly troubled by their hasty relocation into storage space. One cannot force the sensitive work of reconnecting ancestral remains to move quickly, and one cannot simply address the issue by their removal from public display. What is most needed now is a more humane approach to caring for these disembodied dead, beginning with the creation of a separate space for the respectful stewardship of human remains, a mausoleum shielded from public view, designed to allow private consultations with descendant communities in a quiet, solemn environment.[10] Even the most well-meaning attempts to repatriate these remains may cause further disconnections if they are not accurately identified and re-connected with their descendants, or if the data produced by their handling without consent continues to be used to further invisibilize and disempower their living descendants.


[1] Samuel G. Morton, An Inquiry into the Distinctive Characteristics of the Aboriginal Race of America and Catalogue of Skulls of Man (Philadelphia, PA: John Pennington, 1840), 352.

[2] Franz Boas, June 6, 1888, as quoted in Ronald P. Rohner, “Franz Boas: Ethnographer on the Northwest Coast,” Pioneers of American Anthropology: The Uses of Biography, edited by June Helm (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1966), 88.

[3]  Anonymous (c. 1904), undated newspaper clipping in Harris Hawthorne Wilder Papers CA-MS-00199, Series VI: Professional Activities, Smith College Archives. 

[4] Margaret M. Bruchac,“Lost and Found: NAGPRA, Scattered Relics, Restorative Methodologies.” Museum Anthropology 33 (2010): 137–156.

[5]  Frédérique Apffel-Marglin and Margaret M. Bruchac, Exorcising Anthropology’s Demons, Dissenting Knowledges Pamphlet Series No. 2. (Penang, Malaysia: Multiversity and Citizens International, 2004).

[6] Bruchac, “Lost and Found.”

[7] Chip Colwell, “Curating Secrets: Repatriation, Knowledge Flows, and Museum Power Structures,” Current Anthropology 56 (2015): S272.

[8] For example, in November 2017, I was notified that one of the missing crania had resurfaced, having been returned by an anonymous college alumnus who admitted to having stolen it. It was matched to the missing inventories by virtue of a number painted on its forehead and craniometric measurements recorded elsewhere.

[9] For a full description of that massacre, see Brian Doerr, “The Massacre at Deer Lick Creek, Madison County, Indiana, 1824,” Indiana Magazine of History  93 (March 1997), 19-47.

[10] Some guidelines for how this might proceed can be found in Alice Sadongei and Philip Cash Cash, “Indigenous Value Orientation in the Care of Human Remains,” Human Remains: Guide for Museums and Academic Institutions, Vicki Cassman, Nancy Odegaard, and Joseph Powell, eds. (Oxford: AltaMira Press, 2007), 97-101.

Margaret M. Bruchac: contributions / website / / University of Pennsylvania