A Personal View Of Burial Artifacts

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - September 28, 2005
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In 1863 at age 26, my great-grandfather Stockard W. Coffee set out from Illinois to “Californy,” crossing the great plains by wagon train as “one of a party of emigrants.” They followed the South Platte River, then through the Black Hills of the Dakotas. At Cheyenne, Wyo., they turned back briefly “because of reports of Indians on the warpath.” They wintered near Denver and set out again in July of 1864.

One evening as the wagons circled to bed down for the night, as the story goes, “some of the young men discovered an Indian burial ground nearby, dug around and brought back some items from a grave. Upon discovering this, the captain of the train was furious, immediately threw the items as far as he could from the wagons, ordered everyone to break camp and continue on through the night.” Young Stockard was an “outrider” for the train and was bringing up the rear when he spotted one of the “items” on the ground. Unable to resist the temptation, he picked it up and concealed it, knowing if found out it could cost him his scalp. He kept his secret all the way to California.

The “item” was one of several silver “Peace Medallions” presented by Thomas Jefferson to Indian Chiefs across the plains in the early 1800s. It is about two inches in diameter, and on one side is a bust of Jefferson with an inscription around the circumference, “T.H. JEFFERSON, PRESIDENT OF THE U.S. AD 1801.” On the opposite side are two clasped hands, a crossed peace pipe and tomahawk, and the words, “PEACE AND FRIENDSHIP.” The two sides are bound back to back with a silver band around the perimeter, and on the band is a ring to accommodate a thong or chain. The medallion isn’t particularly rare, the historical museum below the Arch (“Gateway to the West”) in St. Louis has an extensive collection of similar medallions. This one has been in my family now for four generations and - following tradition - my oldest son is in line for it.

But I must say, the current local legal dispute between Hui Malama I Na Kapuna ‘O Hawai’i Nei and other Hawaiian groups over the disposition of 83 Hawaiian burial artifacts has caused me to rethink our tradition.

In a kukui nut shell, five years ago Hui Malama “borrowed” the artifacts, which include “carved wood statuettes, a human hair wig, gourd objects, and tools” from the Bishop Museum; some say contrary to established museum policy. They were then unilaterally reinterred and sealed into the Kohala cave on the Big Island from which they had been stolen in 1905 and, according to Hui Malama, are now in their rightful place. But other Native Hawaiian groups, such as Na Lei Ali’i Kawananakoa and the Royal Academy of Traditional Hawaiian Art, claim a say in the control over the artifacts, and have filed an injunction for their return to the museum.

I have mixed emotions about the opposing claims. On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to Hui Malama which - in effect - stole the objects from Bishop Museum to return them to the burial site from which they were stolen in the first place and then sold to the museum; culturally, it seems like “the right thing to do,” though legally, clearly the wrong thing to do. On the other hand, the other two Hawaiian entities have a strong argument in demanding the return of the artifacts to the museum, I would think for one of two outcomes: Either the three organizations decide in concert - possibly mediated by the museum, or if necessary, a court appointed mediator - the most culturally appropriate and legal disposition of the artifacts, or the museum resume control of the artifacts to maximize their educational value in the perpetuation of the culture to succeeding generations. These same Hawaiian activists are frequently the ones who complain about the “decline of their culture,” yet would deny the public- including their own Hawaiian youth - access to such vestiges of their culture which would promote understanding and appreciation of it. The outcome will be interesting.

But what about the “Coffee medallion”? After all, it is a “burial artifact.” Surely its “rightful place” is not the top drawer of my desk or the safe deposit box of my bank, or framed on my son’s wall. This is something I need to think about a second time.

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