Wednesday, October 23, 2013
A letter from Loring Abeyta on the book wrapped in human skin, part 3
Loring Abeyta, who has long played an outstanding role in fighting racism, as one can see from her letter, and patriarchy (and militarism) in Denver, wrote a response to my post on the grisly display of a book bound in human skin at the Iliff School of Theology here and Glenn Morris's response about the Smithsonian hoarding of Native American skulls here. The silence about what it meant for years to display this "holy book" at the entrance to the Library is a living wound on the spirit of Iliff. Despite a fund created by the last graduating class, this abomination needs to be acknowledged. Perpetuating amnesia about it and about Iliff's founding in the Sand Creek massacre and "sacralization" of genocide is a mistake.
Loring is married to Tink Tinker, who has led the way in dealing with this issue and they are currently writing about it.
'Thank you, Glenn, for your response on Alan's post. Tink and I have not yet had a chance to discuss a response, but I think we would like to say something about it.
Alan, thank you for giving the issue broader attention through your blog. Tink and I have worked for years to keep this part of Iliff's history front and center in the Iliff community, and it is discouraging (but not surprising) how each year, it seems as if we are starting all over again. When we teach our annual Iliff course on Race, Gender, Class, we always share the history of the book with our students. I tell the students that change can begin to happen right on the soil where they sit if they are willing to advocate for Iliff publicly owning the history of the book. Last year's Iliff graduating class made a gift to the school specifically to create an educational / consciousness-raising exhibit of some kind that would detail the history of the book. I don't know the details, but greatly appreciated the courage of that graduating class. I don't know what has happened with the project. Probably the most interesting thing that has happened to me in telling the story of the book to an Iliff audience was the first year that Iliff had something called "Diversity Day" (or something similar - I can't remember the title, exactly). I was asked to make a presentation about the book, which I did. Then there was a workshop in Bartlett Lounge, where there was more opportunity to discuss the book. Bartlett Lounge used to be the library, and my understanding is that it was there where the book was so proudly displayed. As I was talking about the history of the book to the students and faculty gathered there, the lights suddenly went out. Everybody just kind of looked at each other. It seemed like any commentary about the strange episode would be trivial. I think everyone knew what was going on in that moment. But, as always happens after any discussion of this part of Iliff's history, the lights came back on, the conversation moved on to something else, and folks went on about their business. And each year, Tink and I have to start over again with telling the history. I feel especially bad for Tink in all of this. I think it's been a painful reality about Iliff that he has carried through the years, mainly because his white colleagues would prefer to forget that part of Iliff's past. Tink only learned about the book many years ago, when he was new on the faculty, because one faculty member could not in good conscience keep the history from Tink. Tink was the school's first indigenous faculty person, and to keep that history from Tink was intolerable for this faculty person. So he pulled Tink aside one day and said, "I think there's something you should know....
It is good that one faculty member told his new colleague this fact and bizarre that those who teach about spirituality saw fit to hire a Native American and not mention this past as something the School means, including through that hiring, to repudiate.
Despite much talk about seeking the truth, that academia is often so removed from conscience is startling.
Tink Tinker and Loring Abeyta have stood out for truth about these matters for a long time, and at last, as the 150th anniversary of Sand Creek and DU and Iliff nears (2014), the word is getting out...
Michael Hickcox, who took action in 1974 to get the wrapping of human skin sanctified and buried, and the book removed from the front of the Library, also wrote to me. In addition, he put up a forceful comment on my post:
"I just happened upon this account, and just a few days after it was posted. I believe I wrote this story when a question about this situation was raised at the United Methodist General Conference held in Denver in 1996. I'd like to point out that the book really was in the display cabinet as a curiosity - that was clearly the intent of having it on display there. I didn't share the dispassionate amnesia. I saw it as an abomination - and amazingly an abomination on display, and not hidden away in embarrassment. Because I knew it existed, I took action to deal with it; I called a local Native American organization so that appropriate and caring people could determine what should be done. I was encouraged that the leadership of the seminary immediately joined in.
My 'focus on details' that you comment on: I was impressed by the tremendous disparity: one day in the 19th century, someone tore skin off another human being's back to make a book cover. In the late 20th century, someone else did his best to give that very same skin whatever loving care he could. That can never make up for the horrific past, but the man killed so long ago still deserves whatever care and dignity one 20th-century medicine man can give him.
As to why that book covered with human skin remained at the school for nearly 200 years [closer to 100 probably, though the point remains] I loved my years at Iliff School of Theology - but there's no positive explanation for this.
My response underlined Mike's courage in standing up about this horror, something that all of us could learn from. One person standing up in any situation can make a difference (others had been shaken by the "exhibit," as his original account conveyed, but had not taken action. What he did is part of a process to begin to acknowledge the wounds of ethnic cleansing\"Manifest Destiny," and thus also, perhaps, a very long process, to the limited extent possible, of healing.
"I really admire your standing up about this, Michael. That there is no explanation for the abomination is right. That this was a "curiosity" is something that only people heavily under the influence of racism and without a sense of what is sacred would believe. What those who put out this book at a School of Theology did is a desecration of what is decent about the place."