Maria Pearson

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Maria Darlene Pearson
Tribe Yankton Dakota activist
Born July 12, 1932
Springfield, South Dakota
Died May 23, 2003
Ames, Iowa
Native name Hai-Mecha Eunka (lit. "Running Moccasins"), Darlene Elvira Drappeaux
Known for "The Founding Mother of the modern Indian repatriation movement"
Spouse(s) John Pearson, m. 1969
Children Robert, Michael, Eldon, Ronald, Richard, and Darlene
Relatives 21 grandchildren, 15 great grandchildren

Maria Darlene Pearson or Hai-Mecha Eunka (lit. "Running Moccasins") (July 12, 1932 – May 23, 2003) was a Yankton Dakota activist who successfully challenged the legal treatment of Native American human remains. She was one of the primary catalysts for the creation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Her actions led to her being called "the Founding Mother of the modern Indian repatriation movement" and "the Rosa Parks of NAGPRA".[1]

Activist for repatriation of Native American human remains[edit]

In the early 1970s she was appalled that the skeletal remains of Native Americans were treated differently from white remains. Her husband, an engineer with the Iowa Department of Transportation, told her that both Native American and white remains were uncovered during road construction in Glenwood, Iowa. While the remains of 26 white burials were quickly reburied, the remains of a Native American mother and child were sent to a lab for study instead. Pearson protested to Gov. Robert D. Ray, finally gaining an audience with him after sitting outside his office in traditional attire. "You can give me back my people's bones and you can quit digging them up" she responded when the governor asked what he could do for her. The ensuing controversy led to the passage of the Iowa Burials Protection Act of 1976, the first legislative act in the U.S. that specifically protected Native American remains. Emboldened by her success, Pearson went on to lobby national leaders, and was one of the catalysts for the creation of NAGPRA.[2][1] Pearson was featured in the 1995 BBC documentary Bones of Contention.[3]

Dallas County Conservation Board[edit]

She worked closely with the Dallas County, Iowa Conservation Board for a prairie restoration and annual celebration called Prairie Awakening held at Keuhn Conservation Area. Maria and staff originally planned the event to continue for seven years. Since her death, it has become an annual event, drawing visitors from neighboring states, as well as a smaller international following. Prairie Awakening has acclaimed native dancers, drum groups and leaders coming together to celebrate and share native culture and heritage.

"Trees Forever" and Spirit of the Trees Documentary Series[edit]

Maria was the cultural consultant and worked closely with "Trees Forever" Founding President Shannon Ramsay to create the six-part documentary series, Spirit of the Trees, on American Indians and their connections to trees and forests. Primarily funded by the U.S. Forest Service and completed in 2005, the series was narrated by Floyd "Red Crow" Westerman and directed by Catherine Busch Johnston, winning numerous awards including two Telly Awards. Maria saw making the documentary as a way to educate people on the Native perspective of caring for Mother Earth and to preserve the wisdom of elders. Spirit of the Trees is copyrighted by "Trees Forever" and distributed by the National Film Board of Canada, with Maria featured in the "Circle of Life" Central United States piece. Because Maria was so well known and respected among tribes for her national and international work with indigenous peoples, she was universally welcomed along with the film crew. Shannon Ramsay is working on a book about their travels together to over 40 tribes and first nations, including Hawaii and five regions of North America.


Born in Springfield, South Dakota as Darlene Elvira Drappeaux, she was given the Yankton name Hai-Mecha Eunka, which means "Running Moccasins". Maria was born on July 12, 1932. She married John Pearson in 1969, and spent most of her adult life in Iowa. Pearson had six children: Robert, Michael, Eldon, Ronald, Richard, and Darlene and 21 grandchildren and 15 great grandchildren. Pearson died in Ames, Iowa.[4]


  1. ^ a b Gradwohl, D. M.; J.B. Thomson and M.J. Perry (2005). Still Running: A Tribute to Maria Pearson, Yankton Sioux. Special issue of the Journal of the Iowa Archeological Society 52. Iowa City: Iowa Archeological Society. 
  2. ^ Peason, Maria D. (2000). "Give Me Back My People's Bones: Repatriation and Reburial of American Indian Skeletal Remains in Iowa". In G. Bataille, D.M. Gradwohl, C.L.P. Silet. Perspectives on American Indians in Iowa- An Expanded Edition. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. pp. 131–141. 
  3. ^ "Bones of Contention". British Broadcasting Corp. 1995. Retrieved 1 December 2009. 
  4. ^ "Maria Pearson". Ames Historical Society. Retrieved 1 December 2009.