Bones, burials, bureaucracies


Remains: The task of returning bones and burial artifacts to the tribes that owned them is taking a very long time.

June 01, 2000|By Bill Papich | Bill Papich,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

DOLORES, Colo. - The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, passed by Congress in 1990, seems simple enough: Museums and institutions receiving federal funds must turn over their collections of human remains to modern tribes historically linked to the remains.

But 10 years later, 400 sets remains are still at the Bureau of Land Management museum in this southwest Colorado town. It could be another 10 years before the bones are buried.

"You can't be impatient," says Susan Thomas, curator of the Anasazi Heritage Center. The center is charged with cataloging every Native American bone and pottery fragment found on federal land in southwest Colorado, whether they were excavated by archaeologists, discovered during construction projects or found by hikers and hunters.

And, as Thomas says, it is not a job for the impatient. Nationwide, about 200,000 sets of Native American human remains reside in museums and other educational institutions. Most of them were unearthed in archaeological digs dating back to the early 1800s. But tribal customs, as well as scientific uncertainty and bureaucratic drag, draw out the process of uniting the remains with their modern relatives.

Museum records may list only the date bones were received, not where they were found. Funeral objects must, according to the Repatriation Act, be correlated with the bones they were found with and returned along with the remains. But the objects may have been dispersed decades ago. And sometimes tribal practices and religious beliefs prevent tribes from taking possession of relocated human remains.

The region's ancient Indian civilization, known as the Anasazi, lived for centuries in what is now the Four Corners area, where Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico meet. About 1100 A.D., they mysteriously vanished, leaving behind hundreds of rock ruins and circular religious and ceremonial chambers built into the ground. Some archaeologists speculate that a prolonged drought forced the people to split into groups in search of food.

Most of today's Indian tribes in the Southwest claim links to the Anasazi civilization - some 22 groups in New Mexico alone. But these tribes now differ widely in culture. Matching up yesteryear's bones with today's descendants is often little more than guesswork.

More than 5,000 sets of human remains are warehoused at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson, most of them discovered and stored long before the 1990 law. Most cannot be associated with any particular tribe, and many of the burial objects found with them have long since been separated from them.

Archaeologists and collectors who plundered Indian burial grounds in the late 1800s and early 1900s did not always arrange human remains systematically and with descriptive details, says the museum's curator, Lynn Teague.

"At the time it was a perfectly acceptable museum practice to send things all over the place," she notes. "So objects from a single burial might end up in three or four institutions."

But under federal law, she can't plan for a reburial until funeral objects are reunited with a body. "It doesn't make sense to repatriate part of a burial and then have the other part show up two years later somewhere else," says Teague.

Though museums have been criticized for taking too long to identify bones that have been gathering dust for decades, some tribes have slowed the repatriation process, too - often because reinterment of human remains is unheard of in the particular tribe's culture.

"There's been a hesitancy to accept the body, the spirit of the body," says Tessie Naranjo, a member of the small Santa Clara Pueblo tribe in northern New Mexico. For 10 years she has been on a federally appointed commission to assist in implementing rules and regulations to guide the repatriation process. "To reinter is something that is not in their ritual protocol so they're kind of stumped about what to do with reinterment."

Carolyn McArthur, Colorado Historical Society coordinator for the Repatriation Act, says some Indian tribes don't understand the law or may lack resources to pursue it. The society's museum in Denver has more than 400 unidentifiable Native American remains dating back 100 years that were found on state and private land in Colorado.

"There are a lot of remains that are sent to the state archaeologist with no information at all," McArthur says. "We consult with 43 different tribes who have had a presence at some point in the past, or have expressed some cultural connection to Colorado in the past."

In 1990 the Congressional Budget Office estimated that museums and institutions nationwide receiving federal funding contain as many as 200,000 sets of Native American human remains. Only about 20,000 have been cleared for repatriation, according to Tim McKeown, a National Park Service official who is national coordinator for the Repatriation Act.

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