Two deaths in Carlton County have spurred intense discussions about American Indians’ right to decline an autopsy for loved ones when it violates their religious beliefs.
Tribal advocates have called for local officials to be better trained in native customs after court orders were needed to prevent autopsies on the bodies of Mushkoob Aubid, a spiritual leader of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, and Autumn Martineau, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
Both died recently in separate car accidents in northern Minnesota.
“There needs to be some additional understanding of the … folks that were here in the state before the Europeans came, and some respect for their belief system, even if it’s not fully understood,” said Tadd Johnson, an attorney who also heads the American Indian Studies Department at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
In both instances, the deceased and their families practiced Midewiwin, a religion that requires a body to be preserved intact for burial four days after death and holds that the spirit of the person travels everywhere they’ve ever been during that period. Johnson acknowledged that the religion isn’t well-known outside of tribal communities, partly because Indians historically hid many of their cultural practices from public view after past attempts to forcibly assimilate them.
“The fact that not many people know about Midewiwin is understandable, because that’s somewhat by design,” he said. “The medical examiner says he’s never come upon this before, and I believe him.”
After the 65-year-old Aubid died in a car accident outside of Cromwell, a Carlton County medical examiner scheduled an autopsy at UMD, although the State Patrol said it did not request one. Members of the tribe protested, noting that Aubid was a drumkeeper who preserved traditions for the Ojibwe people.
With the help of Johnson and St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin, a court order by Sixth Judicial District Judge Robert Macaulay forced the medical examiner to release the body.
Days later, at Cloquet Memorial Hospital, the 24-year-old Martineau’s body was zipped into a body bag for a trip to an autopsy site. Her aunt, Lynn Olson, said the medical examiner’s office ignored her protests that an autopsy was against the family’s beliefs.
“I kept asking them, ‘Where are you taking her?’ It must have been four or five times,” Olson said.
Tribal members raced to obtain a court order, again from Macaulay, to release Martineau’s body.
Olson said a doctor had already told the family that the cause of death was severe head and internal trauma suffered in the crash.
A call to Thomas Uncini, the medical examiner contracted for St. Louis and Carlton counties, was directed to Rubin’s office, but Rubin could not be reached for comment. Carlton County Attorney Thomas Pertler, who was also involved, did not return a message.
Last week, about 80 students at the University of Minnesota Duluth’s medical school crowded into a seminar hosted by Johnson and Rick Smith, director of the American Indian Learning Resources Center.
The talk deeply affected students, said Mary Owen, director of the school’s Center for American Indian and Minority Health.
“It was rather dramatic to have a group of native people protesting outside of the medical school” after Aubid’s death, said Owen, a member of Alaska’s Tlingit tribe.
“So many people are working hard on our communication between different groups and trying to repair damage from the past. ... People were really interested in ... how we could remedy this so it didn’t happen again.”
Johnson praised Gov. Mark Dayton’s move to have Minnesota officials trained in Indian cultures but said it should be taken to the next level.
In recent days, he said, he’s met with officials from Carlton and St. Louis counties who are “eager to accommodate that type of learning.”