Peacemaker, warrior, cross-cultural community builder, American Indian activist, tribal elder, cultural preservation consultant, Native American issues advisor, Founding Mother of the modern Indian repatriation movement, Nobel Peace Prize nominee, local Unsung Hero, religious advisor, and the Rosa Parks of NAGPRA -- these are a few of the descriptors applied to a unique woman who spent the last 16 years of her life in Ames (1987-2003).
Maria Pearson (Running Moccasins) was a proponent of human rights for all Americans, and, in particular, those of American Indians. A member of the Yankton Sioux tribe, she worked tirelessly on behalf of Native American peoples in Iowa and nationwide. Largely through her efforts, the Iowa Burial Code was changed in the 1970s mandating the reburial of American Indian skeletal remains. Her work in Iowa and continued advocacy on behalf of Native American rights was instrumental in the passage of important federal legislation, most recently the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990. This act provides comprehensive protection for Native American burials and associated artifacts on federal properties and in public and private museums and collections. Her accomplishments in this area were recognized not only at a national level but in several international conferences dealing with human rights and repatriation issues.
In 1990 she traveled to Venezuela to attend the Second World Archaeological Congress as an official indigenous member of the Executive Council. The BBC made a documentary program, Bones of Contention, about Maria that was broadcast in 1995.
The period of the 1960s and 1970s saw much activism by the American Indian Movement (AIM) and individuals as well. Native Americans were protesting their treatment at the hands of the government, especially the practice of removing Indian skeletons from graves and displaying the remains in museums. Maria’s journey on the path of advocacy began in early 1971 when her husband John, a district engineer with the Iowa Highway Commission (now Iowa Department of Transportation), informed her of the Glenwood Incident. During a highway construction project south of Council Bluffs, the remains of 26 Caucasian pioneers were disinterred and moved to a nearby cemetery for reburial. The remains of an Indian woman and her baby and associated artifacts, however, were not re-interred, but were instead sent to the office of the State Archaeologist for study. Maria could not understand this discriminatory protection of Euro-American but not Indian graves.
She immediately set out to meet with Governor Robert D. Ray in Des Moines and thereafter with Marshall McKusick, State Archaeologist. After some time an agreement was reached whereby the Indian woman and her baby and associated artifacts were reburied in the same cemetery as the 26 Caucasians. Eventually Maria met with legislators, archaeologists, anthropologists, physical anthropologists, and other tribal members to spur legislation guaranteeing equal treatment of non-Indian and Native American remains.
At issue was a conflict between native peoples’ animistic religious beliefs and the handling and study of Indian remains by the scientific community. Indian beliefs hold that the past cannot be separated from the present, and that a person’s spirit stays with their remains. Thus, if ancestral bones are disturbed, the spirits are unhappy. Iowa’s landmark 1976 legislation (Iowa Code, Ch. 263B.7-9 & 716.5) was the nation’s first to protect Native American graves and provide for repatriation of remains. Four cemeteries (western, eastern, north-central, and southern) were established for reburials of ancient American Indian remains. Running Moccasins’ efforts eventually led to the passage of the federal legislation alluded to above, NAGPRA of 1990.
Maria Darlene Pearson was born July 12, 1932 in Springfield, South Dakota. Her parents, Joseph Luther Oscar Drappeaux and Winifred May Keeler Drappeaux, gave her the name Darlene Elvira Drappeaux. Since she was a member of the Turtle Clan of the Yankton Sioux tribe, her mother also gave her the Yankton name, Hai-Mecha Eunka (translated as Running Moccasins). Although Maria attended public and parochial schools, she was educated in Yankton customs and traditions by her grandmother.
Maria raised six children (Robert, Michael [Jimmy], Eldon, Ronald, Richard, and Darlene) and had 21 grandchildren and 15 great grandchildren. John Pearson, whom Maria married in 1969, became a strong supporter of her activism. Following her native extended family pattern, Maria adopted both Indian and non-Indian “brothers and sisters.”
Domiciles were many, and included South Dakota, Missouri, Georgia, Germany, Nebraska, and Iowa (Marne, Atlantic and Ames). In Ames she lived at 1405 Truman Place and 1001 North Dakota Avenue. She died on May 24, 2003. Her life has been commemorated in a donor brick at the ISU College of Liberal Arts & Sciences’ Plaza of Heroines.
- Gradwohl, David M. A dedicated proponent, letter to The Tribune (Ames, Iowa), June 9, 2003.
- Neznanski, Matt. Activist Maria Pearson leaves her legacy, The Tribune (Ames, Iowa), June 6, 2003.
- Still running: a tribute to Maria Pearson, Yankton Sioux / edited by David Mayer Gradwohl, Joe B. Thompson and Michael J. Perry. Iowa City : Iowa Archeological Society and Office of the State Archaeologist, 2005.