Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Mountain Meadows Massacre: The Search for Truth

The route of the Fancher-Baker wagon train.
On September 11, 1857, approximately 120 members of the Fancher-Baker wagon train traveling from Arkansas to California were killed in Mountain Meadows, Utah, by residents of the local area. Although the emigrants surrendered to their attackers after a five-day siege, the victims were brutally attacked, hastily and shoddily buried, and their remains left to the elements. The only survivors were seventeen children, all young in age, too young to accurately recall the events of that day, who were subsequently adopted by local families.

In 1859, a monument was built over the site where 34 of the victims were buried. During a restoration of the monument, the remains of 29 massacre victims were discovered by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS). A survey of the area revealed three other areas of interest near the mass grave, however, further excavation or testing on those areas was not allowed by the Church.

The marker that stands where the burials were uncovered and, later, reburied.

Dr. Shannon Novak and several of her colleagues were allowed to examine and analyze the remains. The hope in studying these remains was to determine the events in a scientific manner, which would be more accurate than the biased historical accounts on the subject. During the examination and analysis, evidence of gunshot wounds and blunt force trauma were found. The results of this analysis highlighted the inconsistencies in the historical accounts and opened a floodgate of emotions within the community. Five weeks after the work had begun, the governor ordered that the analysis be cut short, so that the remains could be reburied in time for the anniversary of the massacre.

A fragment of frontal bone (skull) with a gunshot entrance wound.

Many competing theories and debates stull surround this event, even though more than 150 years have since passed. The events of the massacre were, historically, controversial and the discovery of the remains followed by the results of the analysis further complicated the issue. There is no consensus as to what actually happened that day, there are many interpretations and few clues (other than the remains) to distinguish truth from myth. Some claim that a group of Native Americans was responsible for the deaths, while others blame a group of radical religious followers dressed as Native Americans, and a third group blames a mixture of the two.

In 1859, the adopted children were recovered by government officials and returned to relatives in Arkansas. As details of the massacre emerged over time, the extent of local involvement was slowly revealed. Prominent members of the LDS Church in Cedar City, John Lee and Isaac Haight (accused of spearheading the massacre), were excommunicated in 1870. Nine local men, including Lee, were indicted by a territorial grand jury in 1874. Lee was the only one of them who had a trial, was convicted, and was executed for the role he played.

The refusal to excavate the three other areas and conduct a further, and more thorough, analysis of the remains indicates a number of things. Firstly, it may indicate that the local community does not wish to open old wounds by uncovering a painful part of their past. Secondly, it may indicate an urge to suppress the truth. Lastly, it may not mean anything at all. However, without a thorough and all-encompassing analysis of all of the physical remains, making a determination of the truth may not be possible.

Further reading:

Novak, Shannon. "House of Mourning". The University of Utah Press: Salt Lake City. 2008.

Turley, Richard. "The Mountain Meadows Massacre". Ensign. September 2007.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Memorials as Sites of Peace and Burial in New York and Srebrenica-Potocari

Waterfall and Reflecting Pool at 9/11 Memorial
Photo: Craig Ruttle via Newsday
Walking onto the cobblestone plaza of the National September 11 Memorial is an emotionally evocative experience. Visiting this specific site brings up many images and memories: those that I experienced as a young onlooker, far removed from the events of the morning on that site, but especially those which came after in the subsequent weeks, months and years. The purpose of a memorial is to serve as a place of remembrance, which is precisely what the National September 11 Memorial does, but there is an added layer present on this site. Beneath the peaceful waterfalls and the beautiful rows of trees is a deeper connection that makes this site so effective at calling up emotions and memorializing the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

Though I have not visited, I believe that visiting the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial Center in Bosnia and Herzegovina must be evocative in the same way. Here is another instance of incomprehensible tragedy after which survivors, families and the community at large joined together to build a memorial on top of the exact site where the world changed forever. This memorial is not dotted with trees but rather with gravestones, circling out from a religious pavilion, marking the victims’ final resting place. Since 2003, an annual ceremony takes place to return newly identified bodies (though many people remain missing) to Potocari and bring some peace to their families. Nearly all of the victims’ families decide to return their dead to this site rather than bury them in smaller, private cemeteries. Why is this? Why build a memorial at the site of so much misery and then decide to return your loved ones to the same location?
Grave markers at the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial Center
Photo: Memorial Center website
Memorial Stone listing towns impacted by July 1995 genocide and number of victims

The museum portion of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum is not yet open but once it has been completed the missing and dead will be returned to this site as well. At the bedrock level, beneath the plaza, there will be a private space where the yet unidentified remains of victims of September 11 will be stored. This area will be accessed only by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner with a private area for the loved ones of the victims, but its presence will be felt by all visitors to the site. Collective experience and memory are important aspects of healing within any community after a traumatic event and memorials can be integral tools to aid in this process but what is the significance of returning the dead to the site where everything began?

References and further reading:

Blais, Allison, and Lynn Rasic. A Place of Remembrance: Official Book of the National September 11 Memorial.                   Washington, D.C.: National Geographic. 2011.

Wagner, Sarah E. To Know Where He Lies: DNA Technology and the Search for Srebrenica's Missing. Berkeley: University of California, 2008.

For 9/11 Museum, Dispute Over Victims’ Remains

Live feed of National September 11 Memorial Plaza

"These Are Our Bones": NAGPRA and the NYC African Burial Ground

For any cultural or ethnic group the ability to bury the dead, remember them and to hold sacred the places of inhumation is an integral part of society. Two groups, Native Americans and African Americans have been unable to control or protect the remains of their ancestors and their burial grounds because of a historically marginalized place in American society. African Americans have had to deal with the historical and racial legacy of slavery and many of their burial grounds have not been accorded the sacred status that cemeteries of other groups have been given. Many African cemeteries, especially those from the era of slavery, have not been preserved, neither physically nor in documentation. In addition, consistent segregation in years since the end of slavery have prevented African Americans from having real control over decisions regarding the developments of land that had historically been used for burial. Another group, Native Americans, have also had similar problems in controlling how their burial places and remains are treated. Many have seen their ancestors exhumed and used for scientific study by anthropologists as examples of primitive societies.

However, over the last thirty years both groups have managed to wrest back a degree of control over their sacred burial places through several means. First, and most importantly, both groups have actively fought for the right to control their sacred places and the remains of their ancestors buried their. They have also managed to open up a dialogue with anthropologists that has forced that group to take into account the views of the groups that claim a connection to burial places that are being excavated, taking away the cart blanch that previous generations of anthropologists enjoyed when working on Native American or African American cemeteries. Finally, two highly publicized events in the early 1990s have forced the legal and academic recognition of the need to allow both groups to control what happens to their human remains and the places in which they have been laid to rest. In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act with forced all museums with federal funding to return Native American remains while also protecting graves on federal land from being excavated indiscriminately. In 1992, the NYC African Burial ground was rediscovered and efforts by the local and nationwide black community forced the cessation of development and its designation as a national monument.

 Though both groups have made incredible strides, their achievements have not come without controversy, especially in their relationships anthropologists. In order to understand how the two communities have have succeeded protecting their cemeteries and how this has affected the field of anthropology, several questions must be asked and answered. The first, most obvious question is how have both groups managed to force these changes that were, and are so, desperately needed? Did both groups have more success lobbying the federal government or did they achieve success through negotiations with anthropologists. Also and important issue is how divisive the issue has been for both groups. While many participants felt that excavation is a disrespectful practice, some Native Americans and African Americans feel that archaeological investigation is a important way to learn about their people history and preserve their culture. Finally, the impact these changes have had on the fields of anthropology and archaeology must be considered. How has this hampered archaeological and ethnographic excavation and how has it forced professionals to engage more with the present day communities they are investigating?

(Smithsonian Museum of Natural History-http://gazette.gmu.edu/images/smithsonian.jpg)

These questions seek to answer how both Native Americans and African Americans have begun to protect their sacred burial places, but is also part of larger issue.  Many members of both communities see archaeologists and anthropologists as extensions of a colonial policy that stretches back centuries. Therefore, when looking at these issues and examining how things changed it must be viewed as an attempt by both groups reassert their cultural identity and history in the face of the colonial process that marginalized them. By moving to protect their cemeteries  they are preventing further colonial exploitation of their physical remains. Many Native Americans and African Americans see the display of their skeletons and funeral goods in museums as a colonial action meant to index their inferiority and defeat as a people. Their resistance to these processes is a declaration of their cultural and historical status and attempt to bring their invisible role in American history out into the open.

(NYC African Burial Ground Memorial-http://www.nps.gov/afbg/forteachers/images/Memorial_color_corrected_1.jpg)

Both NAGPRA and the NYC Burial Ground events were results of both communities taking action in reclaiming control over their cemeteries and their remains. Though an important achievement for both communities, it has not been without controversy. Anthropologists have argued that NAGPRA and similar laws prevent needed research on past and fading cultures, while it has caused deep divisions within the communities themselves, with some members believing that research should continue and others attempting to block additional study and excavation claiming it as disrespectful to their ancestors and beliefs.

References and Further Reading

Biolsi, Thomas and Larry J. Zimmerman. 1997. Indians and Anthropologists. University of Arizona Press. Tuscon.

Deloria, Vine. 1969. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. Macmillan. New York.

The New York African Burial Ground: Unearthing the African Presence in Colonial New York. 2009.  Howard University Press. Washington D.C.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Hart of New York City: The Poor and The Potter's Field

In The New Colossus Emma Lazarus gives voice to the “The Mother of Exiles,” when Lady Liberty cries, "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”  Standing upon her tiny island in the New York Harbor, The Statue of Liberty was meant to serve as a symbol of freedom, democracy, and opportunity for those migrating to American shores. What happened to those poor huddled masses after they landed is an entirely different story, one that has remained conspicuously inconspicuous for over a century.  Located opposite of Liberty Island in Long Island Sound just northeast of Manhattan resides another highly symbolic little island, the world’s largest publicly funded cemetery and potter’s field.  Approximately 850,000 bodies have been interred on Hart Island, and every year tens of thousands of adults and children wind up in pine boxes stacked one on top of the other in mass graves.  Hart Island is where the homeless, the poor, the unidentified, and the unclaimed go when they die. For many the only identification or marker of their life and death is a string of numbers written on the side of their simple coffin in black marker.  Serving as the city’s largest potter’s field since 1869, throughout the years many of the graves have become lost along with the hundreds of bodies they contain.

As space is socially produced, coded and materially constructed, upon examination it is clear that Hart Island is a place for everything and everyone that the city deems deviant or undesirable. Throughout history this island has been used as a place of exile. A women’s asylum, a confederate and WWII POW camp, a drug rehabilitation facility, a prison, a quarantine facility, and a NIKE missile base have all been located on Hart Island (http://kingstonlounge.blogspot.com/2008/08/hart-island.html).  Even stranger, the island is under the control of the Department of Corrections (DOC), which pays inmates from Riker’s Island Prison to lay the dead to rest (http://www.correctionhistory.org/html/chronicl/nycdoc/html/hart.html).  There have been few visitors to the island, and even families attempting to find lost loved ones are met with a nightmare of bureaucratic red tape due to it being under DOC jurisdiction.  The state maintains a barrier both physical and social between those laying in the potter’s field and the public.  While many New Yorkers may know that the poor end up in a potter’s field, the ritual of burying the dead remains shrouded in mystery.  What does this landscape say about our society?

Adults are buried in three rows of 150 people and the children are buried in three rows of a thousand. The poor lay alongside unidentified and unclaimed persons, and sometimes they are unidentified because they are poor.  Currently, excavations are being conducted to locate unmarked graves, and with the use of DNA, forensic archaeologists are starting to make positive identifications and repatriate some of the remains. Non-profits are also working to obtain the burial records from the DOC and digitize them so the public can search for lost loved ones whom might be buried amongst the masses (http://hartisland.net).  While this helps identify those with families searching for them, it does not help those who were forced into the graves due to economic conditions, nor will it help those who died without comparative DNA samples in the database.

Identifying Remains in New York's Potter's Field by associatedpress
All across the world, in every culture the deceased’s body is highly symbolic in rituals surrounding death.  Even in death it is assumed that an individual or related group should have some agency over the body. For example, in the United States, even those that donate their body to science or choose to forgo a burial must go through a process whereby consent is obtained from a will or family member. However, an interesting connection between death, the state, and capitalism exists; if someone dies without having money for a burial the state then rules over the body, but federal law stipulates that one cannot sell their body for money upon death.  So while the human body may become the property of the state due to economic status, the state also restricts commodification of the corpse. Those that live in poverty are not extended the same rights or abilities as those that can afford hundreds if not thousands of dollars for a burial or cremation. Instead they go through a ritualization that de-signifies the individual and de-sanctifies the human body, creating an unknown homogeneous unit.  While Lady Liberty stands on her island welcoming the poor and wretched to New York City’s shore, another tiny island hidden away from society awaits to lay them to rest en mass. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Chechnya's Mass Graves left Untouched

Second Chechen War: Source
Map of Chechnya: WHO
In 1998, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court was drafted and signed signaling the establishment of the International Criminal Court.  The court was established with the goal of investigating and prosecuting crimes including war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.  Article 6 of the Rome Statute cites the “enforced disappearance of persons” as a war crime.  The definition of such “disappearance” includes, but is not limited to, the murder of persons and the burial of such persons in mass, unmarked graves. 

Archeology holds the unique ability to exhume and identify both the cause of death and the identity of bodies.  Archeological methods can therefore be used highlight the mass human rights violations that have been committed against the disappeared and their families.  In the case of the Chechen wars, archeologists have been unable to highlight violations due to Russia’s unwillingness to exhume the mass graves believed by many who have lost relatives, to be the key to learning what happened to their loved ones who disappeared during the wars.  Russia reports that 574 cases of missing persons have been resolved yet 57 known mass graves remain untouched.  The few investigations that have been carried out, have been either botched or executed in an unprofessional manner.

Numerous human rights organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned Russia’s unwillingness to work to exhume and identify the bodies in an appropriate manner.  Inappropriate practices include failure of collecting evidence from bodies (both forensic and material), failure to publicize their findings to relatives, and failure to carry out investigations into the nature of deaths (such as interviewing known witnesses).  Such botched investigations have made it difficult to determine what has happened to the bodies found.  Since 2005, the European Court of Human Rights has handed down over 170 judgments finding Russia “responsible for serious human rights abuses in Chechnya, including executions, torture, and enforced disappearances” (HRW 5).  But despite these judgments, there have been no official tribunals or legal proceedings on war crimes; Russia has done very little to help victims of the war recover and find their missing relatives, many of whom could certainty be identified by way of proper practices. 

By not exhuming these mass graves or doing so in an improper manner, Russia is further violating the rights of the Chechen war victims.  Surviving relatives are left to imagine the horrors their loved ones endured while not knowing what became of them.   Russia has clearly taken the approach of ignoring its past violations and failing to address the cloud of uncertainty that looms over many survivors whose relatives disappeared.  Russia should be well aware, however, that ignoring a problem does not make is disappear.  Russia’s handling of the mass graves brings up many questions.  How does the refusal to exhume mass graves and subsequently work to identify the bodies further violate the rights of both the deceased and their surviving relatives?  Why has the international community sat by while human rights abuses continue? 


Kramer, Andrew. "A vexing reminder of war in Chechnya's booming capital." New York Times 29 04 2008, Web. 10 Nov. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/29/world/europe/29ihtjournal.4.12440042.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0>.

“Making Justice Count in Chechnya.” Human Rights Watch (2011): 1-21. Human Rights Watch. Web. 9 Nov. 2012

UN General Assembly, Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (last amended 2010), 17 July 1998, ISBN No. 92-9227-227-6, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/3ae6b3a84.html [accessed 9 November 2012]