Official anxious to seal and bury Indian remains

October 08, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

A Schaefer administration official is pressing ahead with plans to move the skeletal remains of a Native American woman from the state's archaeological collection and bury them in a sealed container at a Calvert County park.

Most Indian groups are against such a step. So are Maryland archaeologists.

But Jacqueline H. Rogers, the Housing and Community Development secretary, says she is determined to end years of emotional wrangling over the remains of at least 80 Indians in the state's collection by interring at least one set of bones at the Jefferson Patterson Historical Park and Museum. And she wants it done before she leaves office in January.

"I regard this as sort of a moral issue. I think it is wrong to have bones on shelves," she said. "I am going to stick with doing what I think is best, even if it appears it will please no one." Under one proposal, the remains would be sealed in an aluminum cylinder filled with an inert gas to prevent further decomposition. The container would be buried in an unmarked spot, and Indians would be given the opportunity to conduct or specify the proper rites.

State and federal law requires the secretary to provide an "appropriate place of repose" for any Indian remains now held by the state that can't be linked with living descendants or cultural groups.

But those remains cannot be allowed to deteriorate, and must be kept accessible to scientists and to any Indian groups that might one day prove the remains are those of their ancestors and reclaim them.

State officials have been working for 2 1/2 years to find a way to design and create what they call this "interim place of repose" in a way that is acceptable to Indians and archaeologists. But each attempt has raised vehement objections.

"We're sort of at a point of total impasse," Ms. Rogers said.

On at least one matter, however, there seems to be little opposition from Indians or archaeologists.

State and federal law call for the permanent return of human remains in the archaeological collection that have been linked to modern groups. Maryland archaeologists have identified these remains as quite likely Piscataway, collected in the 1930s in Accokeek. Ms. Rogers has offered them to Piscataway groups in Southern Maryland and hopes to turn them over this year.

"The ball is in the court of the Piscataways," she said.

It is the disposition of the so-called "unaffiliated" remains that has proven nettlesome, and that Ms. Rogers is determined to begin.

The remains that she proposes to rebury were unearthed accidentally in 1981 during construction of the Cecil County Detention Center. Because the site was destroyed, archaeologists believe there is little hope they can link the bones with certainty to any living group.

Two Piscataway Indian groups, including one led by Mervin Savoy, chairman of the Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy, have endorsed the proposed interment at Jefferson Patterson Park. But other Indians oppose the plan because the remains would not be allowed to decay, and would be kept available for scientific study.

"We're totally against that," said Billy Redwing Tayac, chief of the Piscataway Nation Inc., another faction of the deeply divided Piscataway. "When an Indian was buried . . . his spirit has to return to the earth. These people have interfered with these people's journeys into the spirit world. The state has no right to do this whatsoever."

The Maryland Indian Affairs Commission, which advises the state on matters relating to Native Americans, also opposes the reburial and refused Ms. Rogers' request for guidance on how to carry it out.

"The issues are so emotionally charged," Ms. Rogers said. "It's hard to get advice from anybody."

Archaeologists on the secretary's staff have advised her against the reburial. "There should be a comprehensive solution . . . rather than partial, token gestures," said Chief Archaeologist Richard B. Hughes. The board of trustees of the Maryland Historical Trust and the private Council for Maryland Archaeology also oppose the plan.

Archaeologists fear that the sealed aluminum cylinder might not protect the remains from decomposition and that burial of the remains would make it impossible to monitor their condition as the law requires. Others say burying the remains would make it politically difficult to unearth them for study. Some have suggested an above-ground mausoleum, instead. $ Archaeologists also fear that Ms. Rogers' determination to act soon, despite opposition from most Indian groups in Maryland, will destroy whatever trust the two groups have built.

"We felt we have been taking some steps forward" in seeking compromises with the Native American community, said Douglas Comer, chairman of the Maryland Advisory Committee on Archaeology. "She has grown impatient."

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