Ethics: Returning Bones of Contention

A bitter debate over spiritual values and scholarly needs

Arriving at work one day, a Wasp lawyer for Washington's Smithsonian Institution finds a carton on her desk. She is stunned. Inside the box are some clumps of dirt and a note proposing that the contents -- the remains of her grandparents, freshly dug up from a New England cemetery -- be put on display by the museum. The sender is a part-Navajo conservator at the institution, furious that such a fate has befallen the bones of his ancestors.

That grisly episode (from Tony Hillerman's novel Talking God) is fictional, but it epitomizes the tensions in a dilemma that confronts curators,...

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