They stood by Pioneer Cemetery's stone wall with a gaping hole between the graves and faded limestone markers between themâ€”five young men from Iowa's Meskwaki Tribe dressed in traditional fringed buckskins and moccasins.
A group of angry citizens faced them.
I spotted them while driving down Elm Avenue on my Tuesday morning commute as a reporter at the Union-Sun newspaper. Five Meskwakis digging in a cemetery looked like news to me.
I read the sign leaning against the stone wall as I swerved my dented pickup in behind several cars already parked along the street.
WE ARE CONDUCTING AN ARCHAEOLOGICAL EXCAVATION OF PIONEER CEMETERY. WE'LL SELL THESE RELICS AND BONES TO ARCHAEOLOGISTS AND COLLECTORS. EVENTUALLY THEY CAN BE DISPLAYED IN AN INDIAN MUSEUM HONORING WHITE SETTLERS.
"Are you people insane?" a woman yelled above the shouts and the cacophony of car horns. "I've called the police!"
The Meskwakis were sifting pails of dirt through a screen, cheering each time the dirt gave up an antique from pioneer days. The blankets beside them had buttons, broken pieces of old dinner plates, bottles and the rusted remnants of a muzzle-loading musket.
Bones were heaped on a second blanket.
As I elbowed my way through a crowd of about 20 people, more cars and pickups fishtailed in a blaze of brake lights around my parked truck.
"What are you doing?" several motorists shouted.
"My great-grandparents are buried there!" a woman yelled.
A bearish, bearded man ran past me. The Meskwaki he ran toward looked strong and fit, while bearded-man was heavy from 20 extra years of greasy hamburgers, weekend beer runs and armchair quarterbacking.
"Get out of my way," bearded-man yelled at the Meskwaki. He launched a roundhouse swing, but made the poor choice of taking on Iowa's Golden Gloves middleweight champion. The Meskwaki blocked the punch while rocking the man's chin with an overhand right. Bearded-man crumpled to the grass just as two police cruisers roared up to the chaos and four officers emerged running.
I angled straight for the Meskwaki boxer. With the cops hot on the scene, he wouldn't be around much longer to interview.
"I'm from the newspaper," I shouted. "What's your name?"
"Hiram Hawk of the Meskwaki Tribe at Tama," he said, eyeing the police running toward him. "We're protesting the desecration of Indian gravesâ€”"
A cop lunged, spinning him around and pinning his arms behind him.
"â€”at the mounds last week."
* * *
We walked into a dark room. Jay flicked on a light and led me to a table. On it were four clay pots, several arrowheads, a pile of pierced shell beads, a copper blade, clay pipe bowls with carved lines, and stone effigies shaped and polished into small animals. I could see grains of dirt under some pieces.
"Look at this!" he said. His eyes shone from the intoxication of enthusiasm. He handed me a five-inch clay figure of a kneeling woman holding a bird.
"Incredible," I said. "Where did you get it?"
He didn't answer. Instead he began chattering about the ancient wonders arrayed before us.
"The last person to touch this before me was an Indian several centuries ago," he said, holding up a pot with a painted design. "If it wasn't for us collectors, Eddie, these treasures would be lost forever." Jay wasn't slurring his speech as much when he picked up objects. "Of course, they're worth thousands of dollars."
His voice turned to background noise. I wasn't listening. My peripheral vision sensed a white object. Without turning my head, I glanced to the side and saw itâ€”a skull on a bookshelf, staring at me from dark sockets.
"Look at this pot," Jay exclaimed. "At least a thousand years old. Can you imagine its value to a collector? Twenty grand at least."
Jay continued talking and showing me objects. I tried to act interested, but I was chilled by the skull's sightless stare. You couldn't resist, could you Jay? Stealing the burial artifacts wasn't enough for you, was it? I felt nauseous.
"Come back when we're both sober," he said with a laugh. "Collectors like us love this stuff, but you don't look so hot right now." He swept his arm around the room. Decorated buckskin shirts, bows, tomahawks, old photographs and shadow boxes of beaded moccasins and arrowheads covered all four walls.
"Let's go," he said, guiding me back to the door with a hand on my back. "Ya look like you're gonna hurl, and I don't want that in here."
I glanced back. The skull screamed silently at me.
About Iowa Writes
Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.
In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.
Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.
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Dennis Herrick received an M.A. in journalism at the University of Iowa. The former publisher of the Sun in Mount Vernon and Lisbon, he now teaches journalism at the University of New Mexico and writes fiction. He is the 2004 winner of the Tony Hillerman Mystery Contest. "Spirit Journey" appeared in the most recent issue (#11) of Wapsipinicon Almanac. Since 1988 the almanac has been edited by Tim Fay and published at his Route 3 Press in rural Anamosa/Monticello. Each issue features a mix of fiction, reviews, essays, poetry, art and homey information, packaged in the format of a folksy, old-time almanac.
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