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Ethics versus Expectations: The Ethical Battle Archaeologists Faced

by Silvia Oakland

Human Remains and War Materiel from 1971 Genocide
Human Remains and War Materiel from 1971 Genocide (public domain)

One thing that is talked about heavily in the journalism department is ethics. Regardless of what concentration we choose, digital cinema, multimedia journalism, sports media or public relations it’s important for us to understand what we believe in. Through professional organizations like the Public Relations Society of America or Society of Professional Journalists, we can model our ethics from national standards and build upon them as we become working professionals.


The thing about ethics though, is not everyone shares the same ones or practices them all at the same capacity. For example, what I might consider being at the topic of my ethics can be significantly lower for someone else. It doesn’t make either one of us a bad person, it just means we want to protect or ensure different things when we’re working.

Maria Pearson at archaeological site.
Maria Pearson at archaeological site.

For archaeologists they faced a similar problem: do they follow their own personal ethics or do they follow their professional job expectations? This ethical dilemma came up especially for those working on cases like what Maria Pearson was fighting for in the Glenwood Incident of 1971. While Caucasian bones were being sent to be reburied, Native American bones were being sent to be examined in a museum because they were “different.”


The ethical dilemma appeared later on when archaeologists began listening to activists like Maria. They realized their job was hurting Indigenous people and their spiritual beliefs, but they still needed to do their job to find and preserve history. It seemed like an impossible feat. How could archaeologists go about doing their job and preserve history while also giving back Native American bones and artifacts that were spiritually important to their culture and their ancestors?


Duane Anderson, state archaeologist for Iowa from 1975 to 1986, said it was a matter of working with Native Americans to have a better cultural understanding. Anderson met with Maria Pearson in her house to have an introductory conversation about how archaeologists can better serve the communities they work with.


“I said to Maria there has to be some way to officially and formally recover remains that can't be kept in the ground. And she [Maria] agreed to that,” Anderson said.” And so we kind of went on and on, not trying to make any decisions, but you're trying to feel each other out and see where each other were coming from.”


It can be really easy to say in that situation you would have done what was right. That we would have known it was right to give back the remains of the Native Americans rather than keeping them for scientific study. Hindsight is 20/20, but for those working in the moment, it can be difficult to understand what is best for everyone involved.


When working in high-pressure situations, it might feel best to go with what you know rather than what you know to be moral or ethical. For Anderson and Pearson, this battle of ethics was crucial to the passing of the Iowa Burial Protection Act and the Native American Grave and Repatriation Act. Both Anderson and Pearson worked together exercising their unique ethics to make real change for legislation and for the Native American community in Iowa, in the nation and even beyond, like in Brazil.


As we continue our work as media and communications professionals, it’s important for us to stay true to our ethics, regardless of how difficult these situations can be for us. Through this documentary, we have put our ethics to work and it has only solidified what we believe in.


We are honored to help tell the story of Maria Pearson and the people she impacted.

Silvia Oakland is the Producer/Writer for Simplex Stories. Originally from Hawkeye, IA, she has around five years of experience as a multimedia journalist. Feel free to reach her at silvia.oakland@wartburg.edu.

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