The Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History is involved in an emotional quarrel with two American Indian groups over the museum's right to stockpile and sometimes display skulls and other Indian bones.
The National Congress of American Indians has accused the museum of violating Indians' religious rights and of racial discrimination for refusing to return approximately 14,000 American Indian skeletons for burial.
"They do not do this with any other race of people but the red man," said Jan Hammil, a Mescalero Apache who heads a national organization called American Indians Against Desecration (AID). "Can you imagine if they dug up white Americans -- Catholics, Jews, Protestants -- and put them on display in the name of science? It would not be tolerated."
Smithsonian officials argue the bones are of scientific value and are being used by some Indians to stir public concern for historic wrongs done to native Americans.
Douglas H. Ubelaker, curator of anthropology at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, said the Smithsonian regards the Indians' point of view as "a sincere one and one that we are listening to" but added: "We suspect it originates from the general Indian revitalization movement growing in the United States today . . . The skeletal issue seems to serve as an emotional rallying point."
Ubelaker said the Indian bone collection has increased in value as scientific techniques for bone analysis have improved. Already the bones have been key in uncovering the diets of Indians over generations, their illnesses, life styles and routes of Indian migration across the United States, he said.
"Their value is in trying to learn the history of the American Indians themselves," said Ubelaker. "We feel that rebuilding that past is a major component of not only their past but an important part of the history of this hemisphere."
The bones, some acquired by the museum as recently as five years ago, include prehistoric specimens as well as others as recent as the 16th century. Some bones from Kentucky have been dated to several thousand years before Christ, Ubelaker said. The museum also has Indian bones from Canada, Mexico and Central and South America, but the AID's concern is with American Indian skeletons.
Ubelaker said complying with the Indians' request would be contrary to the museum's mission of "keeping and maintaining things . . . the bones are repositories of information on people no longer with us." He said the Indian group does not want to maintain the bones but "bury them and have them rot."
"The Smithsonian and other institutions put self-interest . . . over interests of Indians," said Karen Funk, congressional liaison for the National Congress of American Indians. "They are violating . . . the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which says federal agencies shall remove barriers and allow access to the exercise of American Indian, Alaskan and native Hawaiian religions. And keeping American Indian skeletons is a barrier to the exercise of free religious beliefs among American Indians."
Funk said meetings with Smithsonian officials have produced only a list, by state, of the number of American Indian skeletons in the museum's possession. Forty of the museum's North American Indian skeletons come from the District of Columbia; 1,730 from Maryland; 1,519 from Virginia.
Smithsonian officials have suggested they might discuss returning skeletons to any Indian who can prove they are directly related to the person whose bones the museum possesses. Funk, however, said the museum has not given Indian groups names of those whose bones are being held or the exact locations where they were unearthed.
Hammil said the museum's idea of releasing the bodies to families does not fit with the American Indian religious concept that all Indians are responsible for the care of their collective ancestors' spirits.
Although there are more than 500 Indian tribes recognized by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs -- each with distinct religious beliefs -- nearly all agree that a person's final resting place is sacred and should not be molested.
Hammil said modern Indians are concerned for themselves as well.
"If scientific values are placed over religious values, are we going to end up dug-up too?" Hammil asked. "Many of us do not want to end up in cardboard boxes or on display at the Smithsonian."
Hammil said that until recently archeologists would dig in any Indian grave site if it did not have headstones. Indian bodies and articles buried with them were automatically considered artifacts and resources for the scientific community.
In 1984, before the Air Force began excavating in Wyoming to lay cables for the MX missile silos, the Indians were successful in reaching an agreement to rebury any uncovered Indian corpses and to avoid Indian grave sites. Hammil said a similar agreement has been reached with the U.S. Forest Service.
Recently 36 bodies were reburied at Wounded Knee Cemetery in South Dakota after the Oklahoma State Museum returned all Indian remains to the Indians. The coalition AID claims to have reburied the remains of 5,000 Indians.
The coalition was formed in 1978 after "The Long Walk" from California to Washington, a march to protest U.S. government policies on Indian reservations. After seeing Indian remains in museums along the way, the Indians vowed to press for the proper burial of their ancestors.