This post, along with Winnifred Fallers Sullivan’s, was occasioned by the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Salazar v. Buono, concerning the use of the cross for purposes of national memorialization.—ed.

* * *

In Sunday school I learned that the cross points to the empty tomb. Given how easily theological concepts jump the tracks when translated for the benefit of eight-year-olds, this now strikes me as a pretty fair representation of a core idea, central to most Christianities: the crucifixion makes sense only in light of the resurrection. And, no doubt, plenty of people have suffered torturous deaths, so this alone would hardly form the basis of a story that could have more than local relevance. Moreover, the resurrection conveys a Christian theory of death en nuce and metonymically—for some, of course, it would be better to say metaphorically. In any case, whether by way of vague aspiration, an expected apocalypse, or simply due to a learned literary sensibility, most Christians take the resurrection to be the proper model for death—that is, death is recognized precisely through overcoming it. Celestial destinations are in mind. Terrestrial stopping points—graves—are thus temporary and incidental.

This model of death, as signified by the cross, could not be more different from that held by people indigenous to the U.S., including American Indians and Native Hawaiians. In the first instance, most American Indian people regard themselves as autochthonous—as people born of the ground. Their connection to specific places is thus genealogical in a consubstantial sense, to borrow a Christian phrase. Upon death, one returns to the land, which is one component of Indian understandings of the land as sacred. Heaven is on earth—or, it might be better to say, heaven is earth. No empty tomb. Indeed, a primary struggle of indigenous peoples is that with other people emptying their tombs. This is more than stealing; it is sacrilege. Vertiginously enough, then, the enabling cultural mechanism of non-native grave disruption—a vision of interment as incidental and temporary—becomes a cross that native peoples have had to bear.

Hawaiians do not regard themselves as born of the land in a literal sense; only Pele is capable of that feat. Their traditions are of migration and the acts of will and bravery that made possible open-ocean sailing and land-finding in the remote Pacific. Transplanted though they are, their connection to the land is also genealogical in a consubstantial sense, and this by way of cultivation. Kalo (taro), envisioned as the older brother of humanity, was stillborn and planted in the earth. He became the food that nourished his younger brothers, humans. Exotic as it may appear, here we have a story of sacrifice and (at least, metaphorical) cannibalism at the center of a cultural narrative of filiation. In any event, Hawaiians play this story forward through their conception and treatment of iwi (bones). Human remains are planted (kanu) in the ground in order that their mana may spread and regenerate other forms of life. Moreover, the iwi are guarded and cared for as living members of the ‘ohana (family). Born into the line of Kalo, Hawaiians incur a binding and reciprocal relationship to the dead. Colonization, land development, and Western collecting habits have had profound impacts upon this generational connection to the land. When Hawaiians activists broke into the Bishop Museum in
1994 to take back the remains of two venerated Hawai`i Island chiefs in order to
reinter (kanu) them, they were confronting the crossroads of history by means of
direct action. I am confident that the chiefs’ new grave sites are not marked by
a cross.

In this shorthand account of indigenous traditions, I do not mean to suggest that native peoples stand wholly outside of Christianity—or, for that matter, that they are in any other way monolithic. The story is much more complicated than that, starting with the fact that the majority of American Indians and Hawaiians self-identify as Christians, and this, of course, in a range of ways. Some, I am wholly confident, would be as happy as my Methodist grandmother to have a cross honor their lives and deaths. Others, however, have embraced aspects of the Christian message and habitus without foregoing claims to culturally specific ways of inhabiting their bodies, now and in the hereafter. Changing attitudes about death and the relationship of bodies to land is a hard sell, especially when people on the ground see the consequences of de-sacralized land in the hands of non-native interests. At a minimum, we should acknowledge that the cross is contested within and between native communities, and that we cannot assume that even Christian natives are comfortable with the capacity of the cross to capture or convey their postmortem hopes. Interested readers need only look to a currently unfolding dispute surrounding Kawaiaha`o Church in downtown Honolulu. The dispute involves one of the most historic churches in Hawai`i and its stewardship of Hawaiian graves. Central to the dispute is the question of whether or not a Christian church has the moral and legal authority to manage the fate of the Native Hawaiian dead.

Finally, I want to direct my comments to the particular issue pinpointed in Salazar v. Buono. Winnifred Sullivan’s essay on the topic blows open the discussion in a number of ways. My contribution here is to ask about the war dead of native peoples and the role of the cross in memorializing them. As I suggested above, I would guess that many native soldiers would be honored by a cross in life and in death. Certainly the sample group is large enough to allow for tremendous variation—American Indians and Native Hawaiians serve in the U.S. military in numbers far greater (per capita) than the population as a whole. I became sensitized to the import of this well-known fact in the course of my research on the repatriation and reburial movement. The testimony of and stories about native soldiers became a cornerstone of native efforts to support passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990) in the late 1980s. Summarizing, the argument went along these lines:

We are citizens, indeed, we are citizens who’ve made the greatest sacrifice to this country—we are soldiers. And many of us have made the ultimate sacrifice by dying for this country. In fact, some of us are MIA, and we appreciate the efforts of the U.S. government to see that our remains are returned from abroad. We are here to ask that this same sensitivity be applied to our human remains in U.S. museums and other institutions. Thousands of our ancestors are MIA.

Sometimes this argument was made by way of appeals to Christian sensibilities. And these appeals were sometimes metaphorical: as Christians, you know the sanctity of the dead; we only ask that you show something of the same in your treatment of our dead. In any case, a serious and largely successful battle for repatriation legislation was fought. Today the law is being implemented in a range of ways, and it is still very much in its adolescence. What is clear is the continuing role of traditional imperatives in emboldening native activists and cultural leaders to continue to struggle for the dead. They wish to see the dead treated and honored in their own terms. I can think of no more fitting way to close than with the testimony of William Tall Bull, of the Cheyenne Dog Soldier Society, before the Senate:

There is a situation in this country where we practice, I believe, among the American people—a belief that we have as our honor system. Over across the river, in Arlington, we pay great respect and tribute to missing soldiers, to people who have served the country in one way or another, and there is a lot of respect and honor bestowed on the dead. We would like to see a commission where the honor can be shared and enjoyed by all peoples. We practice such things as saluting the flag; we pledge allegiance, we do a number of things that express honor, and we would like to have that honor shared so that all people can enjoy it in their own respective manners.