Over 100 years after his death, Yale paleontologist O. C. Marsh 1860 is still inspiring fossil feuds. In addition to his lifelong rivalry with fellow paleontologist E. D. Cope, the latest Marsh controversy involves dinosaur fossils he may have stolen from Native American lands in the 1870s.
Lawrence Bradley, a doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology/Geography at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, visited New Haven from Feb. 20 to 25 to determine the volume of material he believes Marsh obtained for the Yale Peabody Museum without permission from the Oglala Lakota Sioux reservations.
Bradley said he does not expect the fossils to be returned to the Sioux, but wants the museum to publicly acknowledge that the specimens were taken from Native American lands. He also said the University should create educational opportunities for the Lakota tribe to learn about the collections found in their territory.
“The universities that have benefitted over the decades from these fossils … now have a responsibility to give back,” Bradley said. “Yale can be a leader in this area.”
During his visit, Bradley worked primarily with Walter Joyce, collections manager of the vertebrae paleontology department at the museum, while attempting to catalog the fossils in the museum that were taken from Great Sioux reservations.
Bradley said Joyce and the rest of the Peabody staff were forthright and helpful.
“The hospitality of New Haven and Yale has been great,” he said. “I suspect I’ll be back a few times if everything goes well.”
Joyce was unwilling to comment on the details of Bradley’s visit.
“Overall, Lawrence’s visit to the collections was not much different that any other of the approximately 200 visits we have every year to the division of vertebrate paleontology,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Lawrence apparently had a productive visit.”
Between 1870 and 1873, Marsh led a series of expeditions into the American West, collecting fossils from areas in Nebraska then owned by Native American tribes.
Bradley, who is currently writing his dissertation “Paleontological Dispossession from the Great Sioux Nation,” said there is no evidence that Marsh ever asked permission from the Sioux to enter their territory and dig. The fossils recovered, therefore, belong at least in part to the descendants of the tribes from which they were taken, he said.
One specific example of Marsh’s disregard of tribal politics during his expeditions occurred in 1874 in an episode with Chief Red Cloud, a Lakota warrior and statesman with whom Marsh reportedly later became friends, Bradley said.
In November of that year, Marsh met with Red Cloud to ask permission to excavate fossils in Nebraska. While Red Cloud consented to Marsh’s request, other tribes in the area protested, afraid that Marsh was searching for gold instead of fossils, said Bradley, a descendent of Red Cloud. But before the dispute was settled, Marsh took the matter into his own hands.
“In the middle of the night, O.C. Marsh takes his group and steals away … to collect these fossils,” Bradley said.
The fossils from this area are now on display in the Peabody, he said.
Although the purpose of the Yale College scientific expeditions was paleontological, Bradley said the groups also took skulls and ornaments from Native American burial grounds.
Bradley said a goal of his project is to show that land was not the only asset taken from the Native Americans as the government gradually scaled down reservations throughout the 1800s.
“Part of what I argue is that these fossils are part of the resources dispossessed from the indigenous people,” he said.
While surveying the Yale collection, Bradley discovered specimens the Peabody purchased from Princeton that may have been uncovered without permission during the 1920s and 1930s from counties in South Dakota located within the Pine Ridge Reservation.
“Who knows if Princeton ever procured permission to pull out fossils from those reservations?” Bradley said.
He will present his findings to the Oglala Lakota Tribal Council on March 14 at the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Bradley said other organizations have not been as helpful as the Peabody in aiding Bradley’s research efforts.
In May 2003, the University of Nebraska and the Nebraska Department of Roads excavated a partial plesiosaur skeleton from an area in northeast Nebraska within the present boundaries of the Santee Sioux Nation, sparking an objection from Bradley.
While Priscilla Grew, director of the University of Nebraska State Museum, said the friction with Bradley and the Sioux resulted from a misunderstanding of property ownership, Bradley insisted that the museum acknowledge that the fossils were taken from land within Santee civil jurisdiction.
Bradley said he plans to continue working as an ambassador between Native Americans and scientists. He said he wants to secure educational rights for Native American youth so they will have the opportunity to explore the field of paleontology.
“I’m not all about stirring up trouble,” Bradley said. “I’m also about finding good solutions.”