Saturday, October 12, 2013

Iliff’s grisly display of a “biblical” text wrapped in human skin


Micael Hickcox, a student at the Iliff School of Theology in the early 1970s (Master's degree, 1974) was appalled by a Biblical text in Latin donated by a “prestigious” – or at least monied – person and displayed - highlighted - in front of the Library.. For it was bound in the skin of a Native American…

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“Near the entrance of the library there were two display cases, one on the left and one on the right. In the display case on the left was a history of the Christian Church written in Latin. The 3 X 5 card in front of the book said that it had been donated by a family that had supported the school. The card also indicated that the book was wrapped in the skin of an American Indian.

The book and its cover were periodically discussed by the students. The book reminded us of stories about the Nazis and lampshades made out of human skin. The atrocious nature of this escaped no one.

As the President of the Iliff League, I brought the book to the attention of a meeting of the student body [of the] organization. The students wanted to seek a proper way to deal with the binding of the book. I was empowered to action on behalf of the Iliff League.

I looked in the Denver phone book to find an appropriate agency or person. I found a number for the American Indian Movement or it may have been Denver Native Americans United. I think it was Mr. Vincent Harvier who later called me back and came to our next meeting and to see the book. He visited, talked with us, and examined the book.

Meanwhile I talked with the Librarian Dr. B.F. Jackson and the assistant librarian Reverend Jerry D. Campbell. Both were already embarrassed by the book and wanted to find a good way to dispose of it, but felt constrained by the book’s connection with an influential supporting family. School President, Dr. Jameson Jones, was also brought into the conversation. Jackson, Campbell and Jones were also pleased to have contact with Mr. Vincent Harvier.

Jameson Jones and Vincent Harvier made plans for proper disposal. Jerry Campbell removed the book from the binding/skin. The book was rebound in a plain cover. The skin was taken at the appointed time to Dr. Jones’ office. That day Mr. Harvier and a “medicine man” [sic – that’s what he was, no quotation marks] arrived at the office. The skin was taken out of the envelope and placed in a velvet cloth and the cloth was folded over the skin. [the focus on details here has an aspect of posttraumatic stress disorder/obsession]. It was then taken away for proper burial.

…The book was in the collection because it was donated by a family significant in the development of the school in the 19th century. It remained as a curiosity [sic], just waiting for someone to find an appropriate way to end an inappropriate presence. It was a disturbing presence and we were grateful for the helpful and concerned response of Mr. Harvier.”

(h/t Steve Fisher)

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This may be the single most sickening thing I have heard about a University or School of Theology (although I am sure the depravity of collections of Native American body parts, some of which must have gotten into university collections will yield up competitors as would perhaps the treatment of slaves...).

What does it say of Iliff and Methodism, that despite discomfort, a lampshade er "holy book" made of human skin was exhibited for many years right out front? Has anyone thought of what might cleanse the place, given this? The word “disturbing” is true, but not strong enough (t is no synonym of ghoulish "atrocity")...

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It is hard not to be overwhelmed by revulsion for Iliff (or America) and its "traditions." It is good that Michael Hickcox did something about it - had a feeling that it was unholy and repulsive that Iliff long displayed this at its Library. What "learning" does this represent?

But it is almost a mark of craziness that Hickcox then calls it "a curiosity." He shares the common amnesia about the real background: the founding of Colorado in exterminating racism (Major Edward Wynkoop named Evans, Chivington and others the "exterminators," whom he had once been with but defected from...).

For the skin was on display at Iliff because that's what Iliff came from and was - it was the Methodists on its first board, Evans, Chivington and Byers, publisher and editor of the Rocky Mountain News, who did Sand Creek and "ridded" Colorado of Cheyennes and Arapahoes in Evans' retrospective phrase:

“So the benefit of that massacre to the people of Colorado was very great for it ridded the plains of the Indians for there was a sentiment that the Indians ought not to be left in the midst of the community. It relieved us very much of the roaming tribes of Indians.” – Evans’ 1884 interview with H.H. Bancroft (p. 21)

John Wesley Iliff was a big cattle rancher dependent on the railways - both the ranch and the railways were on stolen land, a result of this "ridding"...

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Now the book cover was from some other Native American's body, desecrated and offered as "a gift," accepted from a "valued donor." Schools can, of course, refuse such donors and donations and might want to look hard at what they "celebrate"...

German analogies leap to mind, as Hickcox rightly says...

Sophocles' Antigone does also; the Greeks had a deep understanding of sacrilege and respect for the dead. In the play, the new king Creon refuses to let the body of Polynices who fought against the city be buried (Polynices was the son of Oedipus, the previous king). The birds tear at the flesh and spread it - unclean - around the city.

Antigone, Polynices' sister, covers the body with sand. Soldiers apprehend her and Creon orders her walled into a cave to die. But his son who loves her goes into the cave with her. His wife then discovers the suicide of her son, and commits suicide. Sacrilege thus has shocking consequences for the new King, swollen with hubris, on his first day…

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One should see this “trophy” long displayed proudly at the Library at Iliff
as a sign of the racism that marked the second Civil war in the West and ethnic cleansing from "sea to shining sea." See here. This skin reveals a “Founding Amnesia”: for instance, that American foreign policy toward indigenous peoples was neither “idealistic” nor “peace-oriented” nor “honorable,” and that in fact, these are the last words that might occur to anyone who knows about "Manifest Destiny" to describe it…

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Despite Mr. Hickcox's comment, it is probably not conducive to a soul being at rest to have one's skin divided for such purposes (perhaps the medicine man was able to do some healing). It is also hard not to be buried by one's relatives or tribe (American military depredations often prevented this).

That body parts have been stolen from vast numbers, Native American skulls exhibited, and the like says a lot about the community that conquered and murdered them.

3 comments:

M-Hickcox said...

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 - I loved my years at Iliff School of Theology - but there's no positive explanation for this.
- Mike Hickcox 10/18/2013

Alan Gilbert said...

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 have. What those who put out this book at a School of Theology is a desecration of what is decent about the place.

None ya Bees wax said...

You did the right thing. It was sacrilegious to the extreme to wrap a Bible of all things in the skin of an defeated enemy both to the deceased and to the faith.
Pretty wrongheaded to say the least.

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