Native remains' return poses painstaking task
By Dennis O'Brien
The Baltimore Sun
|PETE SOUZA / CHICAGO TRIBUNE , 1998|
|Smithsonian Institution technician Betsy Bruemmer, left, and anthropologist Chuck Smythe examine Sioux artifacts in Washington, D.C. that were being sent to Wounded Knee, S.D., for repatriation.|
WASHINGTON In cavernous storage rooms closed to tourists at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History lie the bones of about 14,700 Native Americans.
Despite hopes that they quickly would be returned to tribal lands, most are likely to stay where they are for a long time.
Laws passed in 1989 and 1990 require the Smithsonian and other museums to inventory collections of Native American remains and return them when possible.
Fewer than one-fifth of the Smithsonian's original collection of 18,000 remains have been returned; an additional 90,000 sets of remains in the nation's other museums lack sufficient documentation to ensure their return any time soon.
The problem is that repatriating remains can take years because of scientific uncertainty about their origins, the work involved in identifying them and traditions observed by many of the 770 federally recognized tribes.
"When these laws were passed, people pushing them thought it was going to take five years to return what was collected, but they had no idea what they were asking. It's an incredibly complex task," said Thomas Killion, an anthropology professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, who formerly headed the Smithsonian's repatriation office.
Quick returns unlikely
The Smithsonian which has the largest single collection of bones by far spends $1 million a year and has 15 anthropologists and researchers poring over the bones in an effort to return them to their descendants.
But it isn't enough to ensure quick returns.
"I think the process is going to take a very long time," said William Billeck, head of the Smithsonian's repatriation office.
The bones at the Smithsonian and other museums were unearthed over the years by archeologists, private collectors, government expeditions, construction workers and farmers. During the 1800s, for example, Army physicians were under orders to ship east for study any Native American skulls they found.
Many tribal officials say they understand why repatriation takes so long. But they're still angry that the bones were dug up and stored in the first place.
"They should have just been left where they were. It's very dehumanizing," said Francis Morris, the Pawnee tribe's repatriation coordinator.
The 380 museums, historical societies and federal agencies covered by the repatriation law have 27,312 sets of remains available for repatriation. But an additional 90,833 remain unidentified because of poor documentation about where and when they were found and may never be returned.
Confirming the tribal affiliation of a set of bones is a painstaking process.
First, researchers must check any written records accompanying the remains often notes from archeologists or Army officers, Billeck said. If they're too vague, scientists turn to ancient maps, letters and colonial records that describe fluid tribal boundaries.
"The remains can be straightforward, or next to impossible to identify," he said.
For example, Billeck's recent search for Kiowa remains began with an examination of a set of bones from South Dakota that Army officers originally sent to the Army Medical Museum in 1860. The remains were labeled Kiowa, but based on where they were found, the shape of the skull and other historical data, they turned out to be Sioux.
"There's no way of knowing what you have until you get into working with it," he said.
The Smithsonian receives two or three formal requests from tribes each year, and each takes two to three years to complete, Billeck said.
Some don't want remains
|An Indian known as Ishi is shown in this July 1912 portrait made in San Francisco. Ishi's brain was returned from the Smithsonian Institution to California for burial in 1999.|
But the Smithsonian can move quickly on high-profile repatriations. Consider the case of Ishi, a California native known as the last "wild Indian" who died in 1916. When a researcher discovered Ishi's brain at the Smithsonian in 1999, the story attracted national press, and politicians demanded its return to California soil.
"We were getting letters from politicians, people like (California Lt. Gov.) Cruz Bustamante and Sen. (Dianne) Feinstein. It was given a top priority," said Killion, who worked on the Ishi repatriation.
It took only a month for the Smithsonian to recommend that Ishi's brain be returned, Killion said. But negotiations with the California tribes that had jurisdiction over his burial site, north of Sacramento near Mount Lassen, took more than a year.
In other cases, experts say the slow pace is not the Smithsonian's fault. Many Native groups don't want the remains, while others need time to plan for repatriation ceremonies and burials.
"It takes time and money to do this. You have to have burial grounds and air fare and shipping costs," said the Pawnees' Morris.
The deeply spiritual Navajo, the largest tribe in the United States, traditionally avoid contact with human remains and don't want theirs back. Nor do the Zuni, another Southwestern tribe, who believe remains are desecrated once they've been dug up.
For others, repatriation requires unaccustomed preparation. "There isn't a reburial ceremony for our tribe. This is a modern situation and we never had to rebury anyone before," said Julie Olds, cultural-preservation officer of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma.
There also are disputes. The Pawnee found themselves in a two-year dispute with the Smithsonian when they filed a 1995 claim on 53 sets of remains and 178 funerary objects dating to 1000 A.D.
Origins often unclear
The artifacts were unearthed in the 1930s on a farm near St. Joseph, Mo., an area that has been home to several tribes, including the Iowa, the Kaw and the Ponca.
"The problem was the Pawnee were in the Plains for a long time, but other tribes had moved into the area, so the question was, were these remains part of that migratory pattern?" Billeck said.
The Pawnee eventually agreed to share the remains with the other tribes. They were reburied in 1997 not far from the spot they were found.
Scientists say some remains predate the tribes that claim them.
"Once you get remains beyond 1,000 or 2,000 years, you're no longer able to culturally affiliate with many tribes or groups of people who came along later," said Richard Jantz, an anthropology professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
The fate of Kennewick Man, a 9,000-year-old skeleton scattered in pieces along the Columbia River in Washington, has been tied up in the courts since it was found in 1996. Native tribes want the skeleton reburied, while scientists want to keep it for research.
"Kennewick is one of 15 or so sets of remains that date back 8,000 years or so and hopefully can tell us something about the earliest Americans," said Jantz, one of eight scientists suing for access to the skeleton.
Some researchers argue that wholesale repatriation is a mistake. "The risk is that a source of scientific inquiry is going to be lost," said Christopher Ruff, an anatomy professor at Johns Hopkins Medical School.
Ruff used the Harvard University Peabody Museum's Pecos Collection, a set of 2,000 remains unearthed in New Mexico beginning in 1915, in studies that compared their skeletons with modern cadavers.
He was able to show that exercise and an active lifestyle stem the effects of osteoporosis. The collection later was returned to the Pueblo tribes and reburied.