Repatriation closes karmic circle for Native Americans


When the Great Salt Lake receded in the late 1980s, American Indian remains began jutting out along on its shoreline. Then the remains started to go missing, presumably stolen. The state had to step in.

Utah adapted a federal law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, or NAGPRA, to standardize the way remains are handled. When Native American remains are found, an individual or tribe may claim them and have them repatriated, which means to return items to a descendant or culturally affiliated tribe.

A claim can be made on remains if at least one of three things is proven: lineal descendant, cultural affiliation, or if the remains were found on their aboriginal land.

A lineal descendent is someone who can trace their ancestry to the remains he or she is trying to claim. If this can’t be proven, a tribe may then try to prove cultural affiliation. But Rebecca Nelson, research assistant for the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, said it’s difficult to get people to agree on what that means.

“What osteologists and scientists in the archaeology community believe is cultural affiliation really doesn’t have a lot of meaning to American Indian people,” Nelson said.

According to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Web site, cultural affiliation can be established when “geographical, kinship, biological, archeological, linguistic, folklore, oral tradition, historical evidence, or other information or expert opinion — reasonably leads to such a conclusion.” But since it is a Native American belief that everything is related, scientific evidence means nothing, Nelson said.

When neither cultural affiliation nor a lineal descendant can be proven, the last resort to claim remains is proof of aboriginal land. This is the area that gives Ron Rood, assistant state archaeologist, the most trouble because “those remains could possibly have no relation to lineal descendant or cultural affiliation,” he said.

If no claims are made, the remains are buried with a ceremony in Utah’s burial vault at the mouth of Emigration Canyon in This is the Place State Park, which has been blessed.

The remains are buried as soon as possible because it is a common Native American belief that if remains are unburied, the individual’s spirit roams the earth seeking rest, Nelson said. This can cause karmic imbalances that result in physical harm to their descendants.

Bruce Perry, chairman of the Northwestern Band of Shoshone, said the Shoshones don’t believe this because they have been Mormon since 1880; they just believe the remains should be buried properly.

Perry said they have repatriated and buried two individuals found in a cave on Hill Air Force Base.  He believes the bones discovered along the Great Salt Lake were Shoshone because that was their aboriginal land. The tribe didn’t have a lot of money at the time, so they couldn’t afford to give the remains a proper Shoshone burial, which involves wrapping them in a buckskin that costs about $500. The two individuals are buried in their cemetery 3 miles from the Idaho border in Washakie, Utah.

Rood is delighted when tribes make claims. Repatriation is a way to bridge communication between Native Americans and the scientists studying their ancestors, he said.

“As a scientist, and an archaeologist and an anthropologist, I believe repatriation is very important. It’s a way, conceivably, for archaeology and tribes to really work together,” Rood said. “It bridges those gaps to find out what really happened.”

Rood has been working on a case that has rewritten history. Seven Native American remains were found in a mass grave in Nephi. All were male and one was as young as 10 years old. Pioneer journals described a skirmish with who Rood believes are Goshutes that led to the deaths. From examining where the fatal shots hit, Rood could deduce that the men and boy were killed while they were running away, not in self-defense.

About once a month, Rood receives a call about human remains, which he said keeps him busy. He can tell “almost immediately” if the remains are from a Native American person because of differences in cheekbones and eyeholes.

One case stands out to both Rood and Nelson. A hunter found the remains of a baby near Fillmore. It was buried with glass trading beads, a woven basket, and a metal plate and cup with “all the pomp and circumstance that was required at the time,” Rood said. Since the baby was only about a year old, its sex could not be determined. The Paiute Tribe made a claim on the remains.

When artifacts like the beads are found in a gravesite, they are repatriated along with the rest of the remains. They are considered funerary objects and are also covered under NAGRPA. The artifacts found with the baby have stayed very close to it throughout the entire process, which can take about a year, Rood said.

This is a great example of successful repatriation for Nelson because “it was obvious someone loved that baby very much.”

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