This story begins during the summer of 1971, on Highway 34, southwest Iowa, with a digger, some lumbering monster doing dirt work, widening the highway maybe—I don’t know. It starts with some huge machine with healthy jaws opening the earth and eating it, a monster which had to stop munching when the ancient graves of 28 people got in the way.
That night, one of the men, a district engineer with the Iowa Highway Commission, a man named John Pearson, came home to Maria, his wife, with the news.
I don’t know how Mr. and Mrs. Pearson started talking, but let’s pretend Maria asked him a standard, spousal question: “Well, dear, now tell me, how was your day?”
Okay, that’s unlikely, given what we know of Maria. Most who knew her would steadfastly declare Maria was no June Cleaver, a fact which husband John must have known only too well because the story says he preceded his news of the day with a stern warning: “Sweetheart,” he said, “you’re not going to like this.”
And he was right on the money with that one. She didn’t.
Because she didn’t, her world—and his and ours—changed at that very moment.
John Pearson told Maria that when his road crew turned up the graves of 28 people that day, 26 were set for reburial at an previously appointed place just up the road. Two of them, however, were not--a mother and child, whose remains were sent to the office of the State Archaeologist in Iowa City.
Because they were Indians.
As was Maria Pearson, born and reared on the Yankton Reservation, where as a member of the Turtle Clan, she was named Running Moccasins, and where her grandmother made sure her granddaughter learned everything she should know about her Native people and their ways.
What the Pearsons had for supper isn’t written up anywhere, but John wasn’t wrong—his wife was hot. The two of them barely finished drying the dishes before Maria left for Des Moines, where she stormed the office of then Governor Robert Ray—and then Iowa City, where she ambushed Marshall McKusick, the State Archaeologist.
She wasn’t demanding special treatment, only equal treatment. What she told them both is that she expected the remains of that Native mother and child to be buried just like the others, not stored in some museum or lab like a dead bull snake. She got so mad she sat—that’s right—she sat on the governor’s office desk, even though she’d never been there before. She could barely contain her righteous indignation.
And that was only the beginning. Maria Pearson spent the rest of her born days making sure honor was granted where it was due, creating the nation’s first legislation to protect Native American graves and provide for repatriation of remains. Those state laws led to what some call “the most significant legislation pertaining to Native American cultural identity since the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.”
Wasn’t easy either. Mary Pearson took on politicians, museum officials, and the scientific community, to create the landmark Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, which protected the rights of Native Americans “to certain human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony with which they are affiliated.”
At the core of the arguments was Maria Pearson’s Native religion, a religion that holds that the past and present are one and that a person’s spirit abides with their remains. When those remains are disturbed, their spirits grow unsettled and unhappy. Standing Bear’s argument for taking his band of Poncas back, once again, on the long walk from Oklahoma was that he had promised his son he would be buried with his ancestors overlooking the Niobrara.
Maria Pearson, through all those years of activism, liked to tell people she heard her grandmother’s voice in the leaves of a cottonwood gently shaking in prairie winds. And what her grandma told her in the voice of those trees—make no mistake about it because Mary Pearson didn’t—was that her granddaughter named Running Moccasins should always and stand up for her people.
When, that first day in the governor’s office, he asked her what it was she wanted, she told him. "You can give me back my people's bones,” she said, “and stop digging them up."
Twice, Maria Pearson was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in preserving once abundant communities all around us.
“You’re not going to like this,” her husband said. He was right.