Preserving Indigenous Burial Grounds: Insights from History and Cultural Resource Management

Green College Staff

"Dr Niiyokamigaabaw Deondre Smiles grew up in the urban environment of Minneapolis, Minnesota and is a citizen of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, a sovereign nation a few hours north of the city.

Although his interests cannot be contained to just one discipline, Dr Smiles would eventually study geography, jumping from the Ohio State University—where he received his PhD—to become an Assistant Professor at the University of Victoria (UVic). On a Wednesday evening in January, Dr Smiles introduces himself to the Coach House audience with a vivaciousness typically reserved for early career professors. His enthusiasm is infectious, even if the topic of conversation—grave disturbances as ecocide—inspires indignation rather than joy.

“I want to start out by defining the term ‘ecocide,’” Dr. Smiles says. Ecocide is the “knowledgeable, willful damage, destruction and degradation of the environment.” This term is heavily associated with another essential concept, settler colonialism, which rose to prominence in the 1980s/1990s to understand a type of colonialism characterized by “settlement and enduring occupation of land.” Unlike franchise colonialism, in which European powers extract raw resources without directly governing the colony, settler colonialism displaces and makes invisible existing populations in order to replace them. Replacement is a permanent goal of the colonizing power, so settler colonialism should be understood as a structure rather than an event. Sai Englert, a scholar in the Netherlands, introduced another notable aspect of settler colonialism that focuses on exploitation: “the people who can exploit the land the most are the ones who hold the most power,” Dr. Smiles summarizes.

The environmental impact of settler colonialism is present both in history and the modern day. For example, colonizers over-hunted bison so that the Indigenous nations of the Great Plains would adopt a more sedentary lifestyle. Today, the heavy presence of extractive industries—such as mining and pipeline development—in the economic output of British Columbia and Minnesota unites these two land masses. They both suffer at the hands of “resource extraction corporations masquerading as political subdivisions,” Dr. Smiles argues. Indigenous land is especially threatened by the colonizers’ practice of exploitation, as exemplified by the abandoned uranium mine within the Navajo Nation. After World War II, the United States approached the Navajo people with a proposition to build this uranium mine, which would aid in the arms race against the Soviet Union. Many people on the reservation were living in poverty, and this mine would bring jobs. However, when the Navajo Nation accepted this offer, the Indigenous workers would enter the mine without proper protection, causing many of them to grow sick. And when the uranium mine was no longer needed, the US government abandoned it without any remediation assistance, so the local water became contaminated. This is but one example of Indigenous land damaged in the hands of settlers.

Indigenous grave disturbances are another form of ecocide. While grave disturbances have been happening as long as there have been human remains, “there seems to be a particular frequency and fervor for the ways that Indigenous burial sites have historically and contemporaneously been disturbed and ransacked.” The grave sites are robbed to gain souvenirs, cadavers for medical experimentation, and bones for pseudoscientific measurements of intelligence and “capacity for civilization” tests. On December 26, 1862—only five days before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation—the US government hanged 38 Dakota men for insurrection. This is the largest mass execution in United States history. Afterwards, the bodies were buried in the river bank, but so many of them were being stolen that the military set up a guard against attempted robbers.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the West was practicing science and medicine in unethical ways. To determine capacity for intelligence, for example, pseudoscientists would measure the skull in the now-defunct field of research known as phrenology. People who were not white were a priori categorized as being of lesser intelligence by phrenologists. These “anthropological measurements of the living” not only declared people of colour as lesser-than, they were also used to siphon land away from Indigenous people. After 1887, to get rid of the “collective nature of Indigenous land ownership,” the US government divided Indigenous Nations into individual parcels of land. Indigenous people were encouraged to “make productive use” of the land through farming, which would assimilate them with the settlers’ way of life. However, to determine who received allotted land from the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, anthropologists measured skulls. If a skull did not align with their pseudoscientific understanding of Indigenous peoples’ anatomy—gained through measurements of stolen cadavers—the person would be considered not “native enough” to receive land. Instead, the land would be given to settlers. In this case, grave disturbances furthered an ideology that justified exclusion so that the land might be exploited under the “care” of settlers. Now that this pseudoscience has been denounced, grave disturbances are often just a casualty of economic and environmental development.

In one case, an Indigenous grave site in Duluth, Minnesota has been disturbed at least four times over a one hundred year period. In the 1870s, as Duluth began to develop, graves were removed to make room for projects such as a new lighthouse. The graves were moved next to a riverbank, which eroded under rainfall, causing remains to slide into the river. In 2017, the government decided to build a bridge over a tributary of the St. Louis River. This disturbed the grave site once again, but the project proceeded for another nine days before halting. The remains were repatriated and moved back to their original resting place, where a memorial was built. This mistake cost the state around three million dollars. These repeated disturbances illustrate the state’s fundamental lack of care when it comes to Indigenous remains. Whereas Judeo-Christian cemeteries benefit from extensive record-keeping, disturbers of Indigenous sites often claim that they “didn’t know it was there”—despite an abundance of similar records relating to the remains, if one were to even skim the archives’ surface.  

Construction and development doesn’t just impact Indigenous graves, of course, but also plants and animals. According to Indigenous cultural resource management, the environment itself is a cultural resource. Indigenous communities often have deep connections to the land; they shape the land, and are shaped by it in turn. Dr Smiles aptly concludes his talk by posing a compelling question: “What if the lessons we take from protecting the dead are applied to protecting the living?”

Niiyokamigaabaw Deondre Smiles is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Victoria. A citizen of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Smiles’ work focuses on critical Indigenous geographies, human-environment interactions, Indigenous cultural resource preservation and science/technology studies. Their current research centres around Indigenous modes of adaptation and mitigation of climate change via preservation of cultural resources. Smiles is the principal investigator of the Geographic Indigenous Futures (GIF) Lab, one of Western Canada’s first Indigenous geographies-focused research labs.

Post by: Kyla McCallum, Green College Content Writer and Resident Member.