Two recent deaths in our communities have become high-profile in Minnesota, bringing to light an egregious cultural insensitivity in the practices of the private business contracting medical examiner services out to Carlton, St. Louis and other counties. These deaths highlight a need to change the law.
On Feb. 7, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe lost a revered tribal elder and drum keeper, Mushkooub Aubid. Just three days later, the Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa lost Autumn Martineau, a promising young woman whose life was ended too soon by a car accident.
The passing of each was a tragedy — for their families and for our communities. This grief was compounded when these families were denied the right to practice their religious beliefs in their deepest hour of grief.
Like other faiths, the Midewiwin religion that many Anishinaabe families follow dictates how we should prepare those who have walked on for burial. Family must remain close to the body at all times for four days, a spirit fire must burn, and the body must be ceremonially washed and dressed. Perhaps most important, the body should not be desecrated in any way. For these families, performing an unnecessary autopsy would be a gross violation.
Sadly, those sacred traditions were interrupted by the medical examiner’s ignorant and disrespectful behavior. While law enforcement officers and hospital staff members saw no reason to perform autopsies in either case, the medical examiner withheld the bodies from their families, threatening to perform immediate autopsies within hours of taking custody of the bodies. The autopsy on Mushkooub was scheduled for 3 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon; the medical examiner initially refused to delay, only relenting after a judge called in a favor.
In the midst of a snowstorm, the medical examiner’s office took Autumn’s remains to Hibbing rather than Duluth. The medical examiner threatened to conduct an immediate autopsy upon her body’s arrival in Hibbing unless the court order was served in person, knowing it was impossible for tribal attorneys to make it in time. He eventually conceded to accept the court order via fax.
Our attempts to explain the practices of the Midewiwin religion were callously rebuffed. We were accused of being liars and inventing a fake religion. The medical examiner at first defied both court orders; his staff argued that no Minnesota court order could compel return of the body. They refused to release the bodies until the county attorney intervened nine hours later in Mushkooub’s case and 15 hours later in Autumn’s. Both families were denied the right to perform required rites in the required time.
In the past, Native children were stolen from their families and forced into boarding schools. They were punished for speaking their Native languages and practicing their religion as recently as the 1970s. Today, many elders have post-traumatic stress and cannot attend ceremonies without fear of police intervention.
After generations of having our sacred traditions outlawed and demeaned, last week’s events were a sickening, ugly reminder that Native traditions are still not afforded the respect they deserve from those who hold power in our society.
When medical examiners are paid per body they autopsy, and there is no cap on their contract, forcing an autopsy against the will of the family without a criminal or public health reason to do so is tantamount to a bounty on Native American corpses.
This must serve as a wake-up call for public officials and Minnesotans. We applaud Gov. Mark Dayton’s efforts to raise the level of cultural awareness; his executive action requires state employees who interact with tribal nations to receive education and training to better understand our communities. Unfortunately, those efforts are clearly not enough.
Mushkooub and Autumn will never be forgotten, but their deaths must be a catalyst to change the law and ensure that the trauma their families have endured is never visited on another family — Indian or non-Indian. All families deserves the right to honor their loved ones in accordance with their religious traditions.
Together with the other tribal nations and interfaith allies, we will use all legal and peaceful means at our disposal to ensure that this inhumane treatment of families is never repeated. We invite all who respect the right to free expression of religion to join us in this effort.
In other states — such as New York, Rhode Island, California, New Jersey, Ohio and Maryland — faith and culture are honored when families request no autopsy, with some common-sense exceptions. If an autopsy is not required for a criminal or public health investigation, one should never be performed against a family’s will, regardless of their religion, heritage or ethnicity. It is time to change Minnesota law and honor all religious traditions.
Melanie Benjamin is chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. Karen Diver is chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.