The mistreatment of Native Americans in the mid- to late-1800s didn’t always end with their banishment or even death. Tribes today, aided some by federal legislation, continue to track down and reclaim skeletal remains and even skin of Indians that ended up in museums, universities and private collections.
One particularly painful chapter was the treatment of remains after 38 Dakota were hanged in Mankato in 1862. The bodies were put in a shallow grave by the nearby Minnesota River. That night their bodies were dug up for use in anatomical studies — a practice not unusual at the time. The remains went to doctors, including Dr. William Mayo, father of the brothers who founded the Mayo Clinic.
Only the remains of one of the 38 — Cut Nose — has been recovered and reburied by Native Americans. Two other Native American remains believed to be of the 38 have also been recovered, but never identified.
Now it appears a full skeleton of one of the 38 has been quietly displayed in a Mankato home for decades until recently being moved to the Twin Cities.
The skeleton was for decades in the Glencrest Drive home of longtime Mankato doctor Donald Swenson, who died 14 years ago, and his wife.
A relative of the Swensons told me the skeleton was long a conversation piece as he was a youngster growing up.
“It was in a white, wooden coffin hanging from the basement wall,” he said.
According to the family story, the skeleton had been in the possession of a family member who was a Mayo doctor in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The skeleton was at some point brought to the Swensons’ home where it stayed until recently.
When Dr. Swenson’s wife last summer moved from the home and prepared to sell it, Meg Johnson and a partner, who run a business that coordinates estate sales, were hired to sell the household items.
Johnson said the first time she went to the house, the Swensons’ son showed her the skeleton.
“It was in the basement in a white coffin on the wall. I saw it,” Johnson said.
She said the son took the skeleton, presumably to his Twin Cities home, before she returned again to prepare for the sale. Telephone messages left for him in recent weeks by The Free Press seeking comment were not returned.
There is nothing illegal about a private citizen possessing skeletal remains.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American “cultural items” to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated Indian tribes.
While others can still possess human remains, selling them is a criminal offense.
Jim Jones, a member of the Leech Lake Band of Chippewa and cultural resource specialist for the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, has helped return skeletal and skin remains to American Indians, including the remains of Cut Nose.
He had also heard about the skeleton that had resided in Mankato and tried unsuccessfully to make contact to see if the tribes might be able to repatriate the remains.
Jones takes a philosophical approach to his somber job of trying to track down pieces of remains from across the country. He calls the reburials part of the “forgiveness and healing process.”
Butit’s often a painful pursuit. When he helped return and bury Cut Nose in 2000, one of the items was a section of the warrior’s skin that had been tanned and tattooed.
“It’s tough, looking at a piece of human skin,” he told a reporter at the time. “I don’t want to see another piece of tanned human skin as long as I live.”
Tim Krohn can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 344-6383.