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Committee on Indian Bones Is Struggling

Monday, October 7, 2002


Hunched around a table with a 2-year-old report that shed little light on a collection of human bone fragments found near Richfield, the Utah Native American Remains Review Committee hit another dead end.

"There wasn't even a skull to measure," said Mel Brewster, the Skull Valley Goshute tribal historical preservation officer. "It would be impossible to prove cultural affiliation."

It was far from the only gray area the committee is encountering these days.

The committee, which rules on American Indian tribe claims to human remains discovered throughout the state, is nearly a decade old. But only recently have its members committed to attend meetings regularly, and as they get down to business they are finding that the law that governs them is full of conflicts and ambiguities.

And they have no money.

Duncan Metcalfe, the Utah Museum of Natural History's curator of archaeology and a five-year member of the committee, said the board does not want to change the state's Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), but it does want to work within the law to find better ways of informing tribes about remains, to find funds for studies and to clarify the purpose of the state's only repository for Indian remains.

"It's a question of accommodation," Metcalfe said. "Native Americans' sentiments about their ancestors are strong, and we have only partially developed tools."

Both NAGPRA and the remains committee trace their origins to the 1988 discovery of dozens of skeletons revealed when the Great Salt Lake receded from the floods of a few years earlier.

At the time, there was no state law regarding what archaeologists and tribes should do with such remains, so a coalition led by Utah State University archaeologist Steven Simms persuaded the 1990 Legislature to appropriate $50,000 to build a repository to protect the bones.

The federal government adopted its NAGPRA law that same year, and the state passed its own complementary law in 1992. The Utah law created a committee, consisting of four Indian representatives and three "repository" representatives, and charged it with notifying Indian tribes of remains discoveries, assessing claims to such remains and deciding which tribal claims are valid.

But throughout the 1990s, a low degree of interest kept the committee from making strides with the Great Salt Lake remains or the other bones found across the state. Metcalfe said that in his first three years, the group never had the four-member quorum necessary to rule on claims. In fact, apart from the repatriation of the Great Salt Lake remains, the committee has never ruled on a single claim.

Now Division of Indian Affairs Director Forrest Cuch has assembled a group composed of chairwoman Patty Timbimboo Madsen of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshoni; the Northern Ute Tribe's Betsy Chapoose; the Paiute Tribe's Lora Tom; the Skull Valley Goshute Tribe's Leon Bear; Metcalfe; Utah State Parks Heritage Resource Coordinator Karen Krieger; and USU archaeologist Patricia Lambert.

The members, who must drive from all corners of the state to attend meetings in Salt Lake City, have consistently provided a quorum in the past several months.

The rejuvenated committee is putting its initial energy into providing tribes with better information on remains discoveries. Currently, a tribe interested in making a case of lineage to a set of remains must file a claim within 60 days of receiving notice from the Division of Indian Affairs.

But without a detailed study, Metcalfe said, it is tough for tribes to make an informed decision on the bones. The committee relies on land-managing agencies to file reports, which are not usually geared toward examining cultural affiliation.

The committee says studies that examine the bones and their archaeological context, explore oral histories and, as a last resort, use destructive testing such as radiocarbon dating, are essential if the state wants to be fair to tribes. Ideally, the committee would work through two notices -- the first alerting tribes to the discovery and impending study and the second containing the study, which triggers the 60-day period.

But who will pay for the studies? The committee itself has no money, and the Division of Indian Affairs, its administrating agency, operates on a limited budget. NAGPRA is silent on funding for such studies, which Metcalfe said would probably necessitate a $25,000 annual budget.

When the committee approached Assistant Attorney General Phil Pugsley regarding funding, he suggested either approaching agencies managing the land on which the remains are found or the Legislature. But Cuch doubts that, in another tight budget year, either of these options would come through.

Federal funds may be even harder to come by. Metcalfe said money funneled through the National Park Service and Bureau of Reclamation for the federal NAGPRA can't be used for the state version of the law.

The committee is also realizing that even the best of studies will not provide proof of ownership for some remains.

According to the state NAGPRA, unclaimed remains should be interred in the repository, located in This Is the Place Heritage Park. It currently contains the 75 skeletons found on the Great Salt Lake and claimed by the Northwestern Band of the Shoshoni. (The tribe has hardly any land on which to inter the remains.) In contrast to the pioneer monuments erected throughout the park, the repository appears as a hole hewn of concrete and chain-link. Jones attributed the repository's low profile to its planners' desire to protect the remains from vandalism.

What the repository planners did not count on, however, was that investigators would open the vault to look for Elizabeth Smart in the summer, an action that brought the repository's location to the public's attention through the news media.

And now, several questions surround the repository too.

"Any research desire on the remains would have to be given by the committee, but [the law gives] no other direction," Krieger said, including who should have access (only Cuch and Jones have keys).

The committee also is working to balance its Indian members' sentiments with the objective judgment necessary to rule on claims. Not all tribes have members on the board -- the Navajo and the Ibapah Goshute tribes are not represented -- but the law expects its Indian members to represent the interests of American Indians and not their own tribes, Simms said.

Amid this confusion, the remains committee is slowly making progress. This week they approved a new letter of notification to tribes.

"It's a slow, laborious process," Cuch said, "but we'll get there."

Copyright 2002, The Salt Lake Tribune

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