An alert friend was surfing the Internet’s largest auction site and came across Item #2526689515, “Human Scalp Lock.” It was listed under “Antiques: Ethnographic (Pre-1900): Native American.”
She immediately e-mailed her entire address book. It did not occur to her that the scalp lock might be a souvenir in the European fashion, a gift from an Indian person to someone else.
No such thought gave her pause, because she never heard of Indians freely giving hanks of hair, not even in this day. The literature and oral history are replete with instances of Europeans paying bounties for scalps, skins, skulls and other body parts as proof of “Indian kill.”
For Native people, news of an Indian scalp lock for sale is not a good thing.
So, my friend sounded the alarm.
By the time I reached the eBay site, a notice was posted: “Bidding is closed for this item. The seller ended this listing early because of an error in the listing.”
The current bid, $10, did not meet the minimum amount required by the seller, one “farrin123,” an eBay member of nearly two years located in San Francisco. This “123” has a 95.7 percent positive feedback record from prior buyers of toys, books, a “private” item and a pre-1900 “Nepalese Decorated Skull” – advertised as an “Actual Human Skull” – that sold for some $500.
The “Human Scalp Lock” was described by “123” in this way: “Scalp lock, presumably American Indian – Set in round leather wrapped hand tied pendant with loop holder and one strip of beading 13in. Long – Excellent condition – Highly unusual and the real thing.”
I filed an e-mail complaint, noting that the seller and eBay were trafficking in Native American human remains across state lines, in violation of federal repatriation law. Their return form letter referred me to their “Prohibited, Questionable & Infringing Items” pages for eBay’s policies.
The eBay policy under “Prohibited and Restricted Items: Human Parts and Remains” reads: “Humans, the human body, or any human body parts may not be listed on eBay. Examples of prohibited items included, but are not limited to: organs, bone, blood, waste, sperm, and eggs … Items that contain human hair (such as lockets) as well as skulls and skeletons that are used for educational purposes may be listed on eBay.”
The policy continues: “eBay does not permit the sale of Native American skulls, bones or other Native American grave related items, as the sale of such items may violate federal law. Get more information on eBay’s rules regarding the sale of artifacts and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).”
I sent another e-mail, noting that the “Human Scalp Lock,” which was identified as Native American and which was not a locket, had gotten past their good policies and made it to the bidding stage.
In no time, I received a second e-mail, identical to the first, referring me to their fine policies.
Perhaps I should have sent another complaint about the skull of the person from Nepal that “123” and eBay marketed as decorative, inlaid with silver and miniature skulls, rather than “educational.” But I didn’t.
I was rushing to New York City for a program on repatriation sponsored by the American Indian Community House and the National Museum of the American Indian, featuring visual art, poetry and prose by Shan Goshorn (Eastern Band Cherokee) and Pahdopony (Comanche).
The centerpiece of the program was a staged reading of “Ghost Dance,” written by Annette Arkeketa (Otoe-Missouria and Muscogee) and directed by Muriel Miguel (Kuna and Rappahannock) of Spiderwoman Theater. The play is about a present-day community of Native people, how they are affected by desecration of burial grounds and grave robbing and what they do to protect their relatives and to assert their cultural and religious rights.
As I watched the powerful play, my thoughts were never far from the scalp lock on eBay. How did it get from the head of the Native person to the auction block? Was he or she an ancestor to someone in the theater? Who will respect and speak for this relative?
My thoughts turned to the real life drama in Yankton territory, along the Missouri River. There, under color of law, the Army Corps of Engineers and South Dakota are digging up a burial ground to make way for recreational development and tourism.
Faith Spotted Eagle (Ihanktonwan Dakota/Nakota) of The Braveheart Society says the feds and the state are trucking human remains and earth from the site at a rate of “15 semi-loads an hour,” while Yankton people scramble to recover what few remains they can with their bare hands.
This is a millennial, multi-tribal sacred place. Yanktons say their people are only the top layers of the burial ground. Beneath them are Arikara and Ponca and other Native people. It was always a place for the undisturbed rest of dead relatives.
In “Ghost Dance,” Arkeketa has one character, Jonathan, ask, “You mean like it’s on the books to do all this skull collecting as a bounty ? Why us? Are the Indians the only ones that have federal policies that allow the government to steal us from our graves?”
Another character, Dr. Ben Bison, answers: “Yes, our race is the only race that has to deal with this absurdity. We are big business and a way of life for museums and other institutional archaeology labs, like state universities. In some federal policies we are labeled as ‘archaeology property.’ We aren’t even considered to be human beings.
“Most of the people that do these sorts of activities don’t believe the way we do. They are more interested in their studies … They are not concerned with the spiritual consequences.”
Jonathan: “How much do they get for us, Doc?”
Bison: “It depends ? I did a sample study of a report I had on one auction house and the amount of sales ran into the millions.”
Jonathan: “You mean we are worth more dead than alive?”
Bison: “Yes, Jonathan, we are worth more dead than alive.”
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.