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Committee on Indian Bones Is Struggling
Monday, October 7, 2002
BY TIM SULLIVAN THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE
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
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
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
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
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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