Mary Ormsby, Feature Writer, Toronto Star
A cross-border battle is brewing over 500-year-old bones belonging to some of Ontario’s original inhabitants — a case descendents describe as academic grave robbing.
The Huron-Wendat Nation is demanding that Louisiana State University return the “stolen” remains of about 200 people. They say researchers improperly gathered the bones from an Ontario ossuary to use for unauthorized student research.
“It’s a feeling of loss — and I get angry a little bit too because (remains) have no business being in universities or museums,” says retired translator Heather Bastien of Wendake, Que., whose prehistoric ancestors first hunted, fished and farmed in southern Ontario 15,000 years ago.
The unusual dispute raises questions about the best way for academics to be culturally sensitive — particularly when studying human remains — in a CSI generation that considers bones a DNA treasure trove of clues to scientific, historic, medical and, sometimes, criminal puzzles.
Bastien, 79, is a Wendake Council representative who has been active in asserting Huron-Wendat rights in Ontario. Some of those rights, outlined in a series of Supreme Court of Canada decisions, mean First Nations people must be consulted before development begins in historic areas that might reveal burial grounds. If Huron-Wendat burial ossuaries (mass bone repositories) are accidentally disturbed — as has happened around the GTA — the nation must be notified immediately.
Bastien says a long-held belief in Ontario that Huron-Wendat were “extinct” — the group migrated to Quebec 350 years ago — has meant few tried vigorously to find them after their graves were unearthed.
That may have happened 21 years ago.
Archaeologist Heather McKillop is the LSU professor who oversaw the excavation and eventual export of bones from the Poole-Rose ossuary near Cobourg to Baton Rouge, La., where she teaches. She was given permission to do so by the native community geographically closest to the ossuary, the Alderville First Nation, which is not Huron-Wendat.
McKillop could not be reached by the Star despite several attempts over the past two weeks and a spokesperson for LSU said the school would not be able to comment. However, McKillop and co-author Lawrence Jackson described the Poole-Rose ossuary as fitting the Huron’s centuries-old Feast of the Dead burial-pit pattern in their 1991 report in the Ontario Archeological Society’s newsletter.
McKillop, described as a Canadian/American academic who studied at Trent University, has overseen student research on the ossuary remains until at least last year.
It’s not uncommon for universities and museums to have old bones.
The University of Toronto, for instance, has thousands of First Nations bones, most of which are Huron-Wendat, from archeological digs from the 1940s through the 1970s. Several years of repatriation negotiations are nearing a conclusion but details are confidential, according to a university spokesperson.
Helen Robbins, a social anthropologist and repatriation director at the Chicago Field Museum, said a scientific middle ground might be reached more often if academics and indigenous people were more “open and honest” with each other.
“There can be benefits with indigenous people getting more access to museums, learning about museums as well as museums learning more about the tribe they have the human remains of — and may have been sitting there for 100 years,’’ says Robbins, who has no connection to the Huron-Wendat /LSU matter.
Prior to European contact, the Huron-Wendat population swelled to about 40,000. They lived in an area from the southern horn of Georgian Bay to the northerly shore of Lake Ontario, and from west of Toronto to Cornwall and Prescott in the east.
Diseases brought by white settlers, including smallpox, devastated the once-mighty confederacy in the 17th century. A group of native survivors eventually migrated to Quebec in the mid-1600s, in part to escape conflict with other nations.
Today, Bastien said there are 3,000 Huron-Wendat in Canada and about 6,000 in the United States.
The Poole-Rose ossuary was carbon dated to about 1550. In typical ancestral Huron practice, many skeletons were de-fleshed and dismembered post-mortem. The measurement and comparison of cut marks on severed bones were among the studies conducted by McKillop’s graduate students.
When the ossuary was discovered by building contractors in 1990, it appears provincial law for investigating an unmarked gravesite was followed.
For remains deemed very old and aboriginal, there are two choices under the Ontario Cemeteries Act: One is to contact the closest First Nations group, which in this case was the Alderville First Nation. The second option is to consult with the most likely people descended from the dead.
Alderville’s then-chief Nora Bothwell and her council gave McKillop permission to excavate, export and study the remains. Bothwell told the Star the bones were expected to be repatriated and that she hadn’t initially known the skeletons were Huron-Wendat.
But McKillop “was likely aware at that time, or ought to have been aware, that the skeletons were ancestral Huron-Wendat,” claims a Sept. 16 letter sent to McKillop, LSU chancellor Michael Martin and provincial Tourism and Culture Minister Michael Chan. It was sent by Toronto lawyer David Donnelly, who represents the Quebec-based nation.
The letter states “this removal and subsequent experimentation was done without consultation with the Huron-Wendat First Nation” and there is no agreement between the school and the nation to “perform these unethical experiments.”
In an interview, Donnelly called the Ontario Cemeteries Act “antiquated and racist.”
“The fact is that for sensitive cultural heritage matters, the Ontario Cemeteries Act still treats aboriginal nations as being all alike. A statute that literally says talking to the closest Indian will do is despicable and illegal.”
Bastien hopes LSU officials will deliver the ancestral bones to Canada so they — and restless Huron souls — can be “returned to the earth” with a calming traditional ritual. A smudging ceremony with tobacco and sage will be performed by elders. Remains are then interred with beaver pelts, artifacts and “the three sisters” — corn, beans and squash.
“It is a special ceremony to quiet their souls,’’ Bastien says. “They’ve been roaming around for so long with no place to stay.”
The Feast of the Dead
Ancient Huron-Wendat ossuaries can contain the remains of hundreds who were honoured by the Feast of the Dead, a socially and spiritually important celebration held every 10 to 12 years.
Bones of those who died over that period were removed from raised wooden structures where they were originally laid to rest and prepared for burial. Dried flesh was stripped from the bones and burned, with skeletons disarticulated (severed at joints) and placed on beaver pelts. The ritual also signalled a village was packing up to move to another area.
French Jesuit priest Jean de Brébeuf, who lived and worked among the Huron-Wendat in the 17th century, wrote a detailed, eyewitness account about the Feast of the Dead in 1636.
“The decision having been made, as all the bodies are to be transported to the Village where is the common grave, each family sees to its dead but with a care and affection that cannot be described,’’ wrote de Brébeuf, in part, according to Martyrs’ Shrine archivist Steve Catlin.
“If they have dead relatives in any part of the Country, they spare no trouble to go for them; they take them from the Cemeteries, bear them on their shoulders and cover them with the finest robes they have.”
The Huron-Wendat believe buried bones are sacred because a person’s soul rests with the remains, while a second soul soars skyward.