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Bone Ethics
By Gretchen Lehmann
February 24, 1999

The recent discovery of human bones and artifacts on the campus of St. Cloud State University has caused excitement and curiosity in Minnesota. The findings promise to reveal a great deal about the state's early settlers. But cases like this also raise unsettling questions about how we treat the remains, and whether we are willing to delay "progress" to learn from history.

EVERY YEAR IN MINNESOTA,construction crews, farmers and archaeologists stumble across hundreds of bones and other human remains. In most cases these discoveries draw little attention unless rare artifacts are found or a large construction project is stopped.
Mather: We often feel disconnected enough from people who lived long ago, you know, whether it was hundreds of years ago or thousands of years ago.
Archaeologist David Mather has supervised many digs in Minnesota. In his work, emotions are a liability; analyzing human remains requires a clinical approach. Disconnecting from history, Mather says, is what many people do when they deal with the past. "We can walk into a museum and look at ancient Egyptian remains without batting an eye," he says, "because few of us have ever the graves of our loved ones disturbed. " But when it does happen, he says it's a very different story. Mather recalls a case in Princeton, Minnesota when he and his crew were called in to salvage a cemetery which was eroding into a nearby river.
Mather: One little girl, I think she must have been 12 years old, rode her bike by and screamed at us that we were desecraters and, you know, it. shocked us all. It must have come out of conversations with her family, but it indicates how strongly people feel about cemeteries, about the past, and you know, protecting the graves of people they feel a connection to.
When human remains are found in Minnesota there is a standard protocol. No matter whether they are native or white remains, all the bones are analyzed by state officials. The state archaeologist oversees reburial of all the bones except those of Native Americans. The fate of these remains is decided by tribal elders. Mille Lacs Band Cultural Resource Protection Officer Elise Aune says before tribes had this decision-making power, native remains were treated as curiosities and museum pieces.
Aune: I think a lot of people were calling our remains artifacts and something that they could study like they do an animal, you know, which is wrong. Mille Lacs people are really protective of their beliefs and traditions of our passed-away people.
The discomfort of digging up a burial site transcends culture and race. In many Native American cultures, for instance, its believed the way a person is buried can directly affect their soul; if the burial site is disturbed, it could also mean retribution for the living. According to Anthropologist Brother Aaron Raverty at St John's University, in the Christian faith, desecration of a grave is just as serious.
Raverty: The body and soul will come together and be reunited at the final resurrection at the end of time, and the remains of the body, they shouldn't be moved, they shouldn't be disturbed because I think there's this vague feeling that this might somehow interrupt or disturb the remains at the final resurrection.
Excavation at the site for the new St. Cloud State library has uncovered 24 grave sites; researchers think they are part of the city's first Protestant cemetery dating back to the 1850s. Considering the brief history of St. Cloud, there is a good chance these people could be related to some of the city's current residents. This close connection is making for deep emotion and some concern about how the bones are handled. Members of St. John's Episcopal Church in St. Cloud want to take part in reburial of the bones. As St. John's member Kathryn Wyant explains, the church's first building was built in 1856 on the exact site where bones were found.

Wyant's eyes fill with tears as she imagines the possibility the remains could belong to some of St. John's founding members.
Wyant: They aren't abstract anymore. You feel for the people that were there, and were buried there - that they were part of people's lives, they were families, and it's not just a curiosity anymore. It's real people.
As law requires, the remains from the St Cloud University site are now at Hamline University where researchers are identifying the sex, age and race of the remains. In the meantime, officials at SCSU have formed a committee to decide how and where they'll rebury the bones this spring.

There is one other matter to be settled about these bones, one far less official: students and others on campus are wondering, even now, whether the school's new library will be haunted.