Study of ancient bones protested

March 10, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

If you ask Sewell W. Fitzhugh why he's opposed to the scientific study of the Indian bones in Maryland's archaeological collections, he turns the question around.

"Would you like them to take up your grandmother's remains and study them?" he asks.

Mr. Fitzhugh, of Cambridge, is chief of the Nause-Waiwash Band of Indians Inc., representing several hundred Marylanders claiming descent from remnants of Nanticoke and other Eastern Shore tribes who remained after most of their people left the colony in the mid-1700s.

Together with the Piscataways in Southern Maryland and other Native Americans and their supporters, they have pushed state officials toward an agreement for the return of some remains for reburial.

In 1992, the General Assembly passed a law to allow "repatriation," and the state has been working ever since to draft regulations.

Weeks of public comment this winter and direct negotiations with Indian groups last month yielded more concessions sought by the Indians. The state agreed last week to take public comments for 45 more days to make sure all sides are heard.

"If the regulations go into effect as we've talked about . . . we are going to give some things back," said Richard B. Hughes, the state's chief archaeologist.

Rather than declare victory, Indian groups are promising a new legislative battle because parts of the proposed regulations would allow the state to keep some of the bones for scientific study.

The Indians say the state waited too long to study the remains and that they should be reburied.

"If you have a coin from the 1700s, and you found it in 1952 and think it's something of value, would you wait until 1994 to find out if it had any value or not?" Mr. Fitzhugh asked.

"I'm sorry, no. Someone cried for these people," he said. "They were laid to rest in dignity in their own way. We believe their remains must continue their journey."

Mr. Hughes acknowledges the emotional power of the Indians' arguments, but he and other scientists fear that irreplaceable knowledge will be lost to everyone if all human remains must be reburied without study. He predicts "a huge fight" if it comes to that.

New techniques can reveal genetic and migration patterns, cultural and biological ties, and disease patterns among groups who lived before their histories could be recorded.

"In my own mind, both sides are right," he said. "But somehow or other it's adding up to a wrong. Somehow, we've got to find a middle ground."

Maryland's collection of human remains has received little study and has never been fully inventoried. It includes the remains, many of them partial, of perhaps 80 American Indians gathered from 16 sites or formerly private collections.

A jumble of bones and bone fragments was taken from a Piscataway ossuary, or bone pit, in Accokeek. Remains found elsewhere include more complete skeletons buried with stone blades, pipes, beads and cups. They are all boxed and stored in locked drawers at the old Hall of Records in Annapolis.

The state's collection also contains the bones of more than 40 people of European and African descent. The Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites, a cemetery preservation group, has lent its support to the Indians and asked for more discussion.

The morality of collecting, studying and displaying human remains is a relatively new question.

Mummies and human oddities have been displayed around the world for centuries. In 1992, the remains of three Maryland colonists were unearthed on television in St. Mary's City, with the cooperation of their descendants.

The 17th century remains of 18 people of European and African descent recently unearthed at Patuxent Point were sent for study with no complaints.

But the issue has become a rallying point for Native Americans expressing renewed ethnic pride. It led to passage of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which requires any organization receiving federal funds to return Indian remains and burial objects to individuals or groups that can show descent from or "cultural affiliation" with the deceased.

Maryland's 1992 law conforms to the federal law and broadens it to include all human remains.

The proposed regulations would give the Maryland Historical Trust up to three years to determine the exact contents of its collection, then six months more to notify any likely descendants or culturally affiliated groups.

Scientists regard much of the collection as too ancient to be credibly linked with modern cultures. Indian groups say all pre-Colonial remains are Native American and that that should be enough.

Mr. Hughes is confident that the Piscataways, and eventually the Nanticokes, will get recognition as "culturally affiliated" and win repatriation of some remains.

Bones that aren't successfully claimed must be placed in "an appropriate place of repose," where they would be inaccessible unless approved for scientific study.

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