Political Matters – March 2019

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By Mordecai Specktor

Indigenous at the Oscars
In accepting the Oscar for best director on Feb. 24, Mexican director Alphonso Cuarón thanked the Academy “for recognizing a film centered around an indigenous woman, one of the 70 million domestic workers in the world without work rights, a character that had been historically relegated to the background in cinema…”

Cuarón’s film, “Roma,” which is streaming on Netflix, focuses on the life of Cleo, a maid for a dysfunctional, middle class family in Mexico City, circa 1971. The film stars Yalitza Aparicio, 25, in her first film role. Aparicio is the daughter of a Mixtec father and a Triqui mother – and she is the first indigenous woman ever nominated for an Academy Award in the best actress category. ­

I’ve been fascinated by the global fame recently attained by Aparicio, who is from Tlaxiaco, a town in Oaxaca state. As it happens, I visited Tlaxiaco, the site of a University of Minnesota studio arts program run by photographer and filmmaker Allen Downs, in 1973. Tlaxiaco also is the hometown of renowned folkloric singer Lila Downs, the daughter of Allen Downs and Anita Sanchez, a Mixtec singer.

FBI and the bone collector
I’ve written a number of stories for The Circle about depredations on ancient burial mounds, the repatriation of ancestors and other controversies pitting tribes against anthropologists.

Recent publicity around a 2014 FBI raid on a farm east of Indianapolis reveals a theft of Native artifacts on a vast, unprecedented scale.

“In April 2014, the FBI – complete with a command vehicle, tents, ATVs and squad cars – surrounded the home of a popular community member on his Rush County farm,” the Indianapolis Star reported in late February. “TV helicopters flew above the scene, which was about 35 miles southeast of Indianapolis.

“Don Miller, who was 91 at the time, had stored on his property thousands of cultural artifacts – a collection that stunned even scholars – from Native Americans and countries around the world. So the FBI’s Art Crime Team, which deals with cultural property crime, was deployed to rural Indiana.”

CBS News recently talked with Tim Carpenter, head of the FBI’s art crime unit, who recalled, “When I first went into his house and saw the size of the collection, it was unlike anything we’d ever seen. Not only me, but I don’t think anybody on the art crime team.”
The FBI has now released photos providing a glimpse of Miller’s collection, “some 42,000 items, including pre-Colombian pottery, an Italian mosaic, and items from China,” according to CBS News.

“Roughly half of the collection was Native American, and the other half of the collection was from every corner of the globe,” Carpenter said.

The recent publicity represents an effort by the FBI “to identify and repatriate the cultural property.” A story posted on the FBI’s website (bit.ly/FBI-ancestors) notes that Miller, a former engineer who died in 2015, had “approximately 500 sets of human remains looted largely from Native American burial grounds” in his collection.

The FBI has created “an invitation-only website detailing the items, in the hopes of gaining further assistance from governments around the world and from Native American tribes.”
CBS News reported: “Experts determined the remains found at Miller’s residence likely came from Native American tribes including the Arikara. In North Dakota, tribal official Pete Coffey is working with the FBI to bring them home.”

“All too often here we have been treated as curiosities rather than a people here,” Coffey told CBS. “They could very well be my own great, great, great, great grandfather, or grandmother, you know, that had been – I characterize it as being ripped out of the earth, you know.”

More than 25 years ago, I wrote about a lawsuit brought by the White Earth Land Recovery Project against the developer of the OTC Residential Park, near Ottertail, Minn. The trailer park developer and individual lot owners had constructed roads, driveways and septic systems in the midst of 23 ancient burial mounds. I visited the OTC trailer park and talked with residents; I also talked with former residents who fled the place after experiencing stranger, poltergeist-type phenomena. The paranormal aspect made this story very popular, as I recall, with a variety of news outlets picking it up.

In any case, the Indiana collection of artifacts and ancestors represents a continuation of the troubling degradation of Native American culture. There’s cultural appropriation, and then there’s this ghoulish trespass on the remains of ancestors. Perhaps, they now will make their way home.