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American Mummy: Manifest Destiny, the Antiquities Act, and the Native American Dead

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Abstract:

When it was signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, An Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities signaled the final phase of Manifest Destiny in North America. Ostensibly, the Antiquities Act was a reaction to the devastation of archaeological sites in the southwestern United States by amateur archaeologists and profiteers who looted kivas for relics. The Act allowed the president to place a threatened site under Federal control and ownership simply by issuing an executive order to declare the land a national monument. Beginning more than a decade after Frederick Jackson Turner announced the end of the frontier, this final acquisition of land by the Federal government in the name of archaeological preservation essentially memorialized the Native American now presumed to be vanishing in the face of inexorable and foreordained progress of the Anglo-Saxon race. Of central interest in these sites, among the arrowheads and potsherds, were the desiccated remains of Native Americans accidentally mummified in the arid desert climate. These mummies helped Anglo-Americans to imagine a new chronology for southwestern American history where natives were erased from the landscape of the present and relegated to an ancient past. Reduced to the status of a relic that could be collected and studied, the American mummy as antiquity served as a trophy, a memento of a chapter of the frontier period now past.

Displayed throughout the twentieth century in small Southwestern museums, roadside attractions, and traveling sideshows, the mummified bodies of Native Americans were an integral part of tourist culture. Highway billboards advertized “Princess Moonbeam” at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado and “Esther, the Basket-Maker Maiden” at the Mesa Verde Museum. “Sylvester, the Desert Mummy” greeted visitors at the World Famous Ye Olde Curiosity Shop on Pier 51 in Seattle, Washington. “The Martindale Mummy,” an ossified mother and child supposedly recovered by gold prospectors in Yosemite Valley, California, toured the Midwest as “the Oldest Mummy in Existence.” These and other displayed Native American mummies embodied the idea of a frontier now ossified as history, the memory of the Indian at once preserved and erased, the romantic noble savage revered and exploited, maintaining a liminal position somewhere between historical subject and exhibited object. My paper will also focus on the cultural legacy of these displays in the revisionist history of Cormac McCarthy’s Southwestern novels and the language of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which formally ended the era of the American mummy in 1990.
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Name: American Studies Association Annual Meeting
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MLA Citation:

Martin, Charles. "American Mummy: Manifest Destiny, the Antiquities Act, and the Native American Dead" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Oct 16, 2008 <Not Available>. 2014-11-30 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p244358_index.html>

APA Citation:

Martin, C. D. , 2008-10-16 "American Mummy: Manifest Destiny, the Antiquities Act, and the Native American Dead" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico <Not Available>. 2014-11-30 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p244358_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: When it was signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, An Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities signaled the final phase of Manifest Destiny in North America. Ostensibly, the Antiquities Act was a reaction to the devastation of archaeological sites in the southwestern United States by amateur archaeologists and profiteers who looted kivas for relics. The Act allowed the president to place a threatened site under Federal control and ownership simply by issuing an executive order to declare the land a national monument. Beginning more than a decade after Frederick Jackson Turner announced the end of the frontier, this final acquisition of land by the Federal government in the name of archaeological preservation essentially memorialized the Native American now presumed to be vanishing in the face of inexorable and foreordained progress of the Anglo-Saxon race. Of central interest in these sites, among the arrowheads and potsherds, were the desiccated remains of Native Americans accidentally mummified in the arid desert climate. These mummies helped Anglo-Americans to imagine a new chronology for southwestern American history where natives were erased from the landscape of the present and relegated to an ancient past. Reduced to the status of a relic that could be collected and studied, the American mummy as antiquity served as a trophy, a memento of a chapter of the frontier period now past.

Displayed throughout the twentieth century in small Southwestern museums, roadside attractions, and traveling sideshows, the mummified bodies of Native Americans were an integral part of tourist culture. Highway billboards advertized “Princess Moonbeam” at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado and “Esther, the Basket-Maker Maiden” at the Mesa Verde Museum. “Sylvester, the Desert Mummy” greeted visitors at the World Famous Ye Olde Curiosity Shop on Pier 51 in Seattle, Washington. “The Martindale Mummy,” an ossified mother and child supposedly recovered by gold prospectors in Yosemite Valley, California, toured the Midwest as “the Oldest Mummy in Existence.” These and other displayed Native American mummies embodied the idea of a frontier now ossified as history, the memory of the Indian at once preserved and erased, the romantic noble savage revered and exploited, maintaining a liminal position somewhere between historical subject and exhibited object. My paper will also focus on the cultural legacy of these displays in the revisionist history of Cormac McCarthy’s Southwestern novels and the language of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which formally ended the era of the American mummy in 1990.


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