School Of Theology Display Of Indian Skin Wrapped Book

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Iliff’s grisly display of a “biblical” text wrapped in human skin

Micael Hickcox, a student at the Iliff School of Theology in the early 1970s (Master’s degree, 1974) was appalled by a history of the Catholic Church in Latin donated by a “prestigious” – or at least monied – person and displayed – highlighted – in front of the Library.. For it was bound in the skin of a Native American…

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“Near the entrance of the library there were two display cases, one on the left and one on the right. In the display case on the left was a history of the Christian Church written in Latin. The 3 X 5 card in front of the book said that it had been donated by a family that had supported the school. The card also indicated that the book was wrapped in the skin of an American Indian.

The book and its cover were periodically discussed by the students. The book reminded us of stories about the Nazis and lampshades made out of human skin. The atrocious nature of this escaped no one.

Mass grave of 146 killed at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, USA December 29, 1890. They died for the color of their skin and their religion. Five days after being killed any bodies too large to be drug off by coyotes are thrown into a pit dug on January 3, 1890

Mass grave of 146 killed at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, USA December 29, 1890. They died for the color of their skin and their religion. Five days after being killed any bodies too large to be drug off by coyotes are thrown into a pit dug on January 3, 1890

As the President of the Iliff League, I brought the book to the attention of a meeting of the student body [of the] organization. The students wanted to seek a proper way to deal with the binding of the book. I was empowered to action on behalf of the Iliff League.

I looked in the Denver phone book to find an appropriate agency or person. I found a number for the American Indian Movement or it may have been Denver Native Americans United. I think it was Mr. Vincent Harvier who later called me back and came to our next meeting and to see the book. He visited, talked with us, and examined the book.

Meanwhile I talked with the Librarian Dr. B.F. Jackson and the assistant librarian Reverend Jerry D. Campbell. Both were already embarrassed by the book and wanted to find a good way to dispose of it, but felt constrained by the book’s connection with an influential supporting family. School President, Dr. Jameson Jones, was also brought into the conversation. Jackson, Campbell and Jones were also pleased to have contact with Mr. Vincent Harvier.

Jameson Jones and Vincent Harvier made plans for proper disposal. Jerry Campbell removed the book from the binding/skin. The book was rebound in a plain cover. The skin was taken at the appointed time to Dr. Jones’ office. That day Mr. Harvier and a “medicine man” [sic – that’s what he was, no quotation marks] arrived at the office. The skin was taken out of the envelope and placed in a velvet cloth and the cloth was folded over the skin. [the focus on details here has an aspect of posttraumatic stress disorder/obsession]. It was then taken away for proper burial.

…The book was in the collection because it was donated by a family significant in the development of the school in the 19th century. It remained as a curiosity [sic], just waiting for someone to find an appropriate way to end an inappropriate presence. It was a disturbing presence and we were grateful for the helpful and concerned response of Mr. Harvier.” (h/t Steve Fisher)

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This may be the single most sickening thing I have heard about a University or School of Theology (although I am sure the depravity of collections of Native American body parts, some of which must have gotten into university collections will yield up competitors as would perhaps the treatment of slaves…).

What does it say of Iliff and Methodism, that despite discomfort, a lampshade er “holy book” made of human skin was exhibited for many years right out front? Has anyone thought of what might cleanse the place, given this? The word “disturbing” is true, but not strong enough (t is no synonym of ghoulish “atrocity”)…

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The Spaniards train their fierce dogs to attack, kill and tear to pieces the Indians. It is doubtful that anyone, whether Christian or not, has ever before heard of such a thing as this. The Spaniards keep alive their dogs’ appetite for human beings in this way. They have Indians brought to them in chains, then unleash the dogs. The Indians come meekly down the roads and are killed. And the Spaniards have butcher shops where the corpses of Indians are hung up, on display, and someone will come in and say, more or less, “Give me a quarter of that rascal hanging there, to feed my dogs until I can kill another one for them.” As if buying a quarter of a hog or other meat.

The Spaniards train their fierce dogs to attack, kill and tear to pieces the Indians. It is doubtful that anyone, whether Christian or not, has ever before heard of such a thing as this. The Spaniards keep alive their dogs’ appetite for human beings in this way. They have Indians brought to them in chains, then unleash the dogs. The Indians come meekly down the roads and are killed. And the Spaniards have butcher shops where the corpses of Indians are hung up, on display, and someone will come in and say, more or less, “Give me a quarter of that rascal hanging there, to feed my dogs until I can kill another one for them.” As if buying a quarter of a hog or other meat.

It is hard not to be overwhelmed by revulsion for Iliff (or America) and its “traditions.” It is good that Michael Hickcox did something about it – had a feeling that it was unholy and repulsive that Iliff long displayed this at its Library. What “learning” does this represent?

But it is almost a mark of craziness that Hickcox then calls it “a curiosity.” He shares the common amnesia about the real background: the founding of Colorado in exterminating racism (Major Edward Wynkoop named Evans, Chivington and others the “exterminators,” whom he had once been with but defected from…).

For the skin was on display at Iliff because that’s what Iliff came from and was – it was the Methodists on its first board, Evans, Chivington and Byers, publisher and editor of the Rocky Mountain News, who did Sand Creek and “ridded” Colorado of Cheyennes and Arapahoes in Evans’ retrospective phrase:

“So the benefit of that massacre to the people of Colorado was very great for it ridded the plains of the Indians for there was a sentiment that the Indians ought not to be left in the midst of the community. It relieved us very much of the roaming tribes of Indians.” – Evans’ 1884 interview with H.H. Bancroft (p. 21)

John Wesley Iliff was a big cattle rancher dependent on the railways – both the ranch and the railways were on stolen land, a result of this “ridding”…

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Now the book cover was from some other Native American’s body, desecrated and offered as “a gift,” accepted from a “valued donor.” Schools can, of course, refuse such donors and donations and might want to look hard at what they “celebrate”…

German analogies leap to mind, as Hickcox rightly says…

Mass genocide of the Native Americans by the Spanish

Mass genocide of the Native Americans by the Spanish

Sophocles’ Antigone does also; the Greeks had a deep understanding of sacrilege and respect for the dead. In the play, the new king Creon refuses to let the body of Polynices who fought against the city be buried (Polynices was the son of Oedipus, the previous king). The birds tear at the flesh and spread it – unclean – around the city.

Antigone, Polynices’ sister, covers the body with sand. Soldiers apprehend her and Creon orders her walled into a cave to die. But his son who loves her goes into the cave with her. His wife then discovers the suicide of her son, and commits suicide. Sacrilege thus has shocking consequences for the new King, swollen with hubris, on his first day…

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One should see this “trophy” long displayed proudly at the Library at Iliff  as a sign of the racism that marked the second Civil war in the West and ethnic cleansing from “sea to shining sea.” See here. This skin reveals a “Founding Amnesia”: for instance, that American foreign policy toward indigenous peoples was neither “idealistic” nor “peace-oriented” nor “honorable,” and that in fact, these are the last words that might occur to anyone who knows about “Manifest Destiny” to describe it…

During Columbus time in Haiti, he and his men hunted the Taino Indians for sport, beating, raping, torturing, killing, and then using the Indian bodies as food for their hunting dogs.

During Columbus time in Haiti, he and his men hunted the Taino Indians for sport, beating, raping, torturing, killing, and then using the Indian bodies as food for their hunting dogs.

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Despite Mr. Hickcox’s comment, it is probably not conducive to a soul being at rest to have one’s skin divided for such purposes (perhaps the medicine man was able to do some healing). It is also hard not to be buried by one’s relatives or tribe (American military depredations often prevented this).

That body parts have been stolen from vast numbers, Native American skulls exhibited, and the like says a lot about the community that conquered and murdered them.

Alan Gilbert, a longstanding anti-war and anti-racist activist, is the author of Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence, Must Global Politics ConstrIn Democracy?, Democratic Individuality, and Marx’s Politics: Communists and Citizens. He teaches at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.
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  • I just happened upon this account, and just a few days after it was posted. I believe I wrote this story when a question about this situation was raised at the United Methodist General Conference held in Denver in 1996. I’d like to point out that the book really was in the display cabinet as a curiosity – that was clearly the intent of having it on display there. I didn’t share the dispassionate amnesia. I saw it as an abomination – and amazingly an abomination on display, and not hidden away in embarrassment. Because I knew it existed, I took action to deal with it; I called a local Native American organization so that appropriate and caring people could determine what should be done. I was encouraged that the leadership of the seminary immediately joined in.
    My “focus on details” that you comment on: I was impressed by the tremendous disparity: one day in the 19th century, someone tore skin off another human being’s back to make a book cover. In the late 20th century, someone else did his best to give that very same skin whatever loving care he could. That can never make up for the horrific past, but the man killed so long ago still deserves whatever care and dignity one 20th-century medicine man can give him.
    As to why that book covered with human skin remained at the school for nearly 200 years – I loved my years at Iliff School of Theology – but there’s no positive explanation for this.
    – Mike Hickcox 10/18/2013

  • Kevin Zeese

    Thank you for commenting further on this event. It is great to understand what you were thinking as you went through this. Thank you very much for taking action. It shows how one person speaking up can make space for others who agree but could not bring themselves to act alone. How many times could an injustice be prevented or corrected if people who see it say something. It is amazing how often when they do so they will find they are not alone.

  • Tahesha Knapp Christensen

    Dear Mr. Alan Gilbert, You ask how justice can be done and how history can be corrected? As a Native American scholar and activist (Omaha Nation by way of Los Angeles) I would suggest for the school and people of the community to continue to reach out to the tribal people of this area and offer resources for its community members and let the tribe decide what kind of relationship it wants with the school. Maybe something positive can come of all of this now that the victim has been given a more respectful burial. To make history right, entire communities, Native and non Native alike need to work towards healing that painful past and decolonizing the future. Any idea for healing or reparations should be Native led. It time is for the community of this school and city to listen to those Native people and do what they can to help whether it is donate money for scholarships, open a physical space or lend a room for Native activities and meetings, maybe have food and clothing drives, or donate social services, or give job preferences to Natives of that community. Create space and opportunity for connection and try to give something to those people for the land and lives that were lost. The biggest thing the school could do is deed the land that it occupies back to the tribe but there are smaller ways to give back and honor the victims of this holocaust. Thank you for posting this article and sharing your perspective. It is a very nicely written article and comes from the right place. I respect your writing and appreciate your willingness to explore what else can be done to correct injustices of the past.

  • Tahesha Knapp Christensen

    Mr. Zee I did not mean to reply to you. I meant to start a new thread I apologize.

  • Malibufire

    Wow, why not display the lampshades made of Jewish skin from the Nazis? That’s a “curiosity” as well. This is an abomination.

  • Vance Hawkins

    And people STLL don’t understand why the Washington football team, known as “Re&%$UYkins” is upsetting. What’s wrong with being called a buckskin, coonskin, or “Re*&^&%kin” they ask? P wonder how they can’t see it.

  • rhon64

    is there a photo of this book?

  • kevinzeese

    Interesting question. I went and searched and could not find a photo of the book. If you find one, please share it.

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  • rhon64

    thank you

  • ponderinglife

    Why would you want to see a picture? This was a horrific crime against a human being whose body was then desecrated and dishonored. I hope no picture exists and that the remainder of that body has finally been laid to rest in a respectful way.

  • Per Johnsen

    Yes it’s a “piece” of history – but if this is to be displayed anywhere, it has to be in the true horror department of a museum on crimes against humanity.

  • Alexander Fretheim

    It is worth noting that Chivingdon DID ACTUALLY get court-martialed for the Sand Creek Massacre. Although he did not suffer any consequences above and beyond the loss of his commission, this was only because of a strange legal loophole that he managed to exploit related to the jurisdiction of civilian and military law – the Army had every intention of hanging him.

    Here’s the poignant excerpt from the official minutes of the Courts Martial:

    “As to Colonel Chivington, your committee can hardly find fitting terms to describe his conduct. Wearing the uniform of the United States, which should be the emblem of justice and humanity; holding the important position of commander of a military district, and therefore having the honor of the government to that extent in his keeping, he deliberately planned and executed a foul and dastardly massacre which would have disgraced the veriest savage among those who were the victims of his cruelty. Having full knowledge of their friendly character, having himself been instrumental to some extent in placing them in their position of fancied security, he took advantage of their in-apprehension and defenceless condition to gratify the worst passions that ever cursed the heart of man.

    “Whatever influence this may have had upon Colonel Chivington, the truth is that he surprised and murdered, in cold blood, the unsuspecting men, women, and children on Sand creek, who had every reason to believe they were under the protection of the United States authorities, and then returned to Denver and boasted of the brave deed he and the men under his command had performed.

    “In conclusion, your committee are of the opinion that for the purpose of vindicating the cause of justice and upholding the honor of the nation, prompt and energetic measures should be at once taken to remove from office those who have thus disgraced the government by whom they are employed, and to punish, as their crimes deserve, those who have been guilty of these brutal and cowardly acts. “

  • Alexander Fretheim

    Well that’s actually upsetting for a different reason, and if you notice hardly anyone protests the Florida State Seminoles (at least for their mascot) because the Seminoles were an actual TRIBE, and one that was quite instrumental to shaping the history of the state of Florida. It is extremely disparaging to the 230 tribal peoples who happen to inhabit These United States with their dozens of language families, numerous artistic styles and massive diversity of deep, thoughtful and unique customs, religions, political systems, technological achievements et cetera to presume them all to be nothing more than the Hollywood stereotype of a “brave”.

    The diversity of the Americas is actually GREATER than the diversity of Europe: linguistically, there are 28 top-level language families on the West Coast of the United States ALONE, including several language isolates (e.g. Haida), in comparison to only FOUR on the entire continent of Europe (Indo-European, Uralic, Turkic and Basque [language isolate]). Pretty much all European societies have a shared set of attributes – patriarchy, patrilineal family names, faint echoes of feudalism, the property rights system known as Real Estate [literally, “estates granted by royal authority], passive age of maturity around 18-21, towns/cities/civil parishes – and there is simply no similar set of shared attributes that North American societies possess. The most polite thing to call an Indian is the name of his tribe.

  • steven bent1

    The human skin lampshade story has been around and has been touted as the evidence of despotism that WHITE BLOND BLUE EYED ARYANS wanntabes perpetrated upon dark ethnicities of many races in their extermination program. One of these races called the JEWS which enjoys much privilege in domination of wealth and of the media has been able to create an idea that indeed this was the case and a relic or the smoking gun artifact surfaced to support the claim. Interesting to note that it just recently surfaced and the provenance of which is extremely DARK as well. Mark Jacobson the possessor of this artifact had extensive testing performed on it. He has intimated that it was human skin but has yet to release such sulpatory proof that indeed this did happen. However given the FACT that this particular item and the further utilization of such a macabre manner as in this mentioned exhibition shows the blindness that absolutism in religious superiority can impose on the natural intelligence of man. The caricaturization of human beings into goy or animals and therefore devoid of human rights has long been the purview of monotheistic mantras whether ARYAN. CHRISTIAN, JUDAIC or ISLAMIC or any human who considers that his ethnicity is EMPIRICAL over any other. The very telling fact that the human remnant was preserved as a cover for one such EXTERNAL VIRUS PROGRAM purporting the `skin for a skin`genocide mentality espoused by the MOTTO of the DEMOCRATICALLY inspired HUDSON BAY COMPANY or any other COMPANY such as those who before debarking the Mayflower these alleged PILGRIM CHRISTIANS made a CONTRACT with JEHOVAH YHWH BAAL SATAN the father of the JESUS CHRIST [not Yeshua’s LIVING FATHER] CONCEPT that contained an IMPERATIVE to create a KINGDOM here on Turtle Island in the same vain as the JEWS did/are doing to PALESTINE [‘no good injun but a dead one’ cause their scalps paid for the vast majority of pilgrim land]. A kingdom on earth is something that YESHUA disavowed was anything remotely close to his intent or representative of his heaven based kingdom. Luke 9:20 & 21 coupled with Matthew 16:16 & 20 in the words and COMMAND of this purported JESUS CHRIST he is not the CHRIST and ‘DO NO TEACH ANY MAN THIS THING’ effectively destroying this supposed mandate of expanding the KINGDOM OF GOD OR JESUS CHRIST also per John 18:36. Hosea 13:4 I [AM is inserted here to imitate the MOST HIGH] the LORD thy God from the land of Egypt [inerrant word of goD from hiS own mouth], and thou shalt know no god [interesting that this entity recognises that he is a god with the small ‘g’] but me: for there is no saviour beside me [now here goD flatly refutes the JESUS CHRIST story]. You need to resolve these issues before you can attempt to understand democracy something original turtle islanders taught to the buffalo and which principles white people then seized upon it and wrote them down in their founding document and now it is the american high scfool curriculum called the AMERICAN CONSTITUTION. It is also veritable history in the stories of venerable AMERICAN CAVALRY veterans who openly wrote about their fellow soldiers flaying the skin from the pubic areas of ‘injun’ women which were proudly displayed as symbols of AMERICAN SUPERIORITY as hat bands in full public view and approval. Only in the USA can an institute which purports to be the very purveyor of all THAT IS WHITE ER RIGHT AND GOOD and which it evidences PROUDLY AS TESTAMENT to such madness..

  • steven bent1

    ponderlife Thomas was person who could not beLIEve unless he could touch and see. There is the ability of people to whitewash their collective dogma because the kharma running over it is too much for them to bear. Better to operate in open denial than to admit that the foundation of your house is skin….

  • steven bent1

    So then he was exonerated on the ‘shoot em all dead and let goD sort em out mantra’ that a gun based POLITICAL ORGANIZATION the UNITED (in CONSPIRACY ON THIS POINT) STATES of AMERIGO of course bastardized or americanized as it appears there is no difference into A MASONIC HYPOTHETICAL SOCIAL CONTRACT which simply by having been exposed to it you become subservient to it. This is very similar to the slippery slope of THOU SHALT NOT which contains a double negative and which causes one to consider the deed as THOUGH THEY HAD COMMITTED IT making them guilty per ‘If you look on a woman and …’ A very slick con game in the same vain as DEMOCKERY….

  • deuces_ak

    What happened to the beliefs of the Christian jesus? To me, the Christians today worship money and power, as well as seizing, stealing, and coercing, minerals that belong to others. And defunding programs that help the same kind of people their jesus helped. So who are these modern Christians who believe the slaughter of 100 million Natives in order to take Native resources and lands, is normal? Isn’t that 180 degrees opposite of what the christian jesus believed in? And why don’t the other Christians speak up?