Give Me My Father’s Body tells the heart-wrenching story of Minik, a young Inuit boy who was led from his home in Northern Greenland to the United States by the pseudo-academic Robert Peary in 1897. The book highlights the dark underside of the formative years of institutions like the American Museum of Natural History and Columbia University. Neither of these institutions has formally apologized for their unethical treatment of Inuit human remains.
Dr. Tracy Betsinger, a biological anthropologist at SUNY Oneonta who has worked closely with museums, believes that human remains should not be used to educate the public on the cultures of indigenous peoples. However, ethically procured and maintained human remains can be used to educate the public on our shared human biology. She adds that indigenous communities should always have the highest authority on where the human remains and artifacts belonging to their heritage should reside, and how they should be cared for.
In response to the controversies surrounding Give Me My Father’s Body, Ian Tattersall, a Curator Emeritus at the Museum of Natural History, said in 2000: “To judge what went on in that time by the values of today is not very productive. All we could do was take whatever action we could do to put things right.” Is Tattersall correct in this assertion?
Would it be responsible for museum professional to accept that the pervading ethnocentric ideologies of turn-of-the-century America are dead and gone?
How should museums go about “putting things right” when it comes to historical accounts of the mistreatment of indigenous human remains?
Source: “An Eskimo Boy and Injustice in Old New York: A Campaigning Writer Indicts An Explorer and a Museum” by Dinitia Smith. The New York Times. March 15, 2000.