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Bones flesh out an island's history

Files of man who dug up Indian skeletons could change views of early Catalina life

April 02, 2012|Louis Sahagun

In 1919, he was hired by George Heye of the Heye Foundation Museum of the American Indian in New York to supply his institution with Native American artifacts. Glidden's subsequent expeditions into Catalina's interior were authorized by William Wrigley Jr., who had just bought the Santa Catalina Island Co., which owns all the developable land on the island.

The recently discovered documents may have been compiled by Glidden to demonstrate to the Heye Foundation and other prospective funders "how wonderfully well he thought his research was going," said the Catalina museum's De Marsche.

Glidden's museum closed in 1950. He spent the next several years trying to sell his collection to other museums and collectors. In 1962 the Wrigley family, which amassed a fortune from the sale of chewing gum, bought and donated it to the Catalina Island Museum.

An estimated 50,000 artifacts -- jugs, bowls, baskets, beads, amulets, rings, shell ornaments, grinding stones, cutting tools and arrowheads -- remain stored under lock and key on the island. Hundreds of bones, skulls and an estimated 30,000 teeth were initially lent to the UC Santa Barbara anthropology department. They were later moved to the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

Glidden was 87 when he died in 1968. The bulk of his journals, ledgers, letters and photographs were boxed up and forgotten.

The day of Boraggina's discovery, De Marsche contacted Wendy Teeter, curator of archaeology at the Fowler Museum. As soon as she arrived, Teeter became entranced by the documents scattered across a table in Catalina.

Archaeologists had been unable to pinpoint exactly where, when or how the remains stored in an enormous temperature-controlled room in the Fowler Museum were collected, or even which ones were found on Catalina. Glidden had been prone to exaggeration and augmented his collection with skeletons acquired elsewhere.

"These are going to fill a lot of holes in the historical records," Teeter said, handling the Glidden documents with white gloves.

"Wow. Incredible," she said, shaking her head as she leafed through photo albums. "I think I recognize some of the remains he's digging up in these photos."

Forensic analysis of the photographs will help determine the exact origins of the remains and the causes of death, she said. "We'll also glean new details about the culture and customs of the people who lived on Catalina thousands of years ago."

The documents may also teach historians more about the man who produced them. "Glidden's journals will tell us what made Glidden tick," Teeter said.

Teeter already has begun assembling a team of experts to analyze the archive. Among them is Cindi Alvitre, who is completing a doctoral dissertation on the genealogy of Native American artifacts exhibited in museums after 1900.

"There were many collections similar to Glidden's around that time, and they were mostly products of cultural cannibalism," said Alvitre, a member of Los Angeles' Tongva Gabrieleno tribe. "Ralph Glidden left our people in a state of constant mourning because he trashed the dignity and respect of ancestors who had been lovingly laid down in the ground during sacred ceremonies.

"I am confident that within my lifetime, the remains he robbed for personal gain will be returned to their proper resting place."

The Catalina museum's immediate plan is to inventory the collection, De Marsche said.

"Looks like we have a fascinating new back story to tell about Catalina's heritage," he said. "And it's been sitting here, under our noses, for a half-century."


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