Gunshots ripped through the late-spring air near a dusty U.S. Army outpost in rural Minnesota in May 1864. Militiamen who were engaged in a campaign against local Indians shot a Dakota man twice: one bullet struck him in the head, shattering his skull; the other tore through his mouth or neck. Either wound alone could have been fatal.
The man likely died instantly or bled to death in seconds. Healthy and strong in life, he now lay on the ground completely disfigured. Described in contemporary newspaper accounts as a “hostile Sioux”—and later by scientists as a man of distant Asiatic descent—he was probably between 25 and 35 years old.
A single incident such as this, even a deadly one, on the distant Minnesota frontier might have soon vanished from memory in a nation focused on violent clashes with Native Americans across the region and the raging Civil War miles away. What happened to the body of this particular young Dakota man, however, was striking. The man’s earthly remains were about to play a small part in an unfolding drama involving major museums, obsessive and sometimes eccentric scientists, and an array of amateur collectors. It is a story marked by evolving efforts to understand the human body in the language of race and human history. These efforts sometimes clashed, competed and even overlapped in complex ways.
Leaving dark trails of blood, the soldiers dragged the corpse across the grass to a nearby fort. Word of the killing spread quickly. White civilians began gathering to celebrate. Settlers beat the lifeless body. Bones cracked. The scalp was cut off and carried away as a souvenir. Once the settlers were finished, someone hastily buried the body in a shallow grave. [This is an adapted excerpt from Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums, published by Harvard University Press.]
In the 2016 book ‘Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums’, Samuel J Redman notes: “The campaign to preserve and collect was viewed as a race against time; bone empires benefited from this powerful sentiment by conceptualising indigenous and ancient bodies as a limited and scientifically valuable resource.”