Grave Reservations

The Colorado Historical Society has collected Indian artifacts for 120 years. Now it has to give many of them back.

Four weeks ago, a federal judge in Portland, Oregon, stopped short of settling the dispute. Instead, U.S. Magistrate John Jelderks ordered the Corps to postpone the return of the remains to the Umatilla and, in the meantime, to reconsider the scientists' request that they be allowed to study the bones. Years of legal wrangling are almost certain to follow.

Kennewick Man is not the only case to pit the empirical desires of scientists against the spiritual wishes of Native Americans. In 1940, archaeologists digging around Spirit Cave, in Churchill County, Nevada, discovered what appeared to be an ancient mummy--a middle-aged man lying on a fur blanket and wrapped in mats. The diggers' excitement was doused, however, when the then-curator of Nevada's Southwest Museum informed them that the body was a mere 1,500 years old--2,000 at the most. The mummy was stuck in a museum vault and promptly forgotten.

In late 1994, a group of scientists experimenting with carbon-dating revisited the mummy. Their tests showed his actual age to be closer to 9,400 years old--older by far than any mummy found in Egypt. By then, of course, NAGPRA had become law. The mummy, which had been found on Bureau of Land Management property, has since been claimed by the Northern Paiute tribe as a lineal ancestor; another long court battle is expected.

The fates of other potentially significant archaeological finds claimed by Native Americans have already been decided, and not to the satisfaction of many scientists. In 1992, the skull of a twenty-year-old woman was uncovered near Buhl, Idaho. Although carbon-dating indicated it to be nearly 11,000 years old, and therefore of enormous scientific interest, before DNA tests could be conducted, the find was turned over to the Shoshone-Bannock tribe as an ancestral remain. The tribe reburied it on its reservation near Fort Hall, Idaho.

The scientific worth of a discovery such as Kennewick Man or the Buhl woman is incalculable. But in a time of tight budgets and stingy government grants, the value of an institution's collection can have a much more concrete application. At the heart of NAGPRA is the question of ownership. And central to the ownership issue is the question of who may realize the economic value of a particular piece of property.

In the early 1920s, the Providence Franklin Society--a group of retired Rhode Island sea captains, whalers and ship owners--disbanded. Over the years, the organization's members had amassed a small collection of artifacts and souvenirs they'd come across during their travels around the world. When the group broke up, the collection was disbursed.

One of the items, a fifteen-and-a-half-inch wooden carving of a Polynesian man crouching like a wrestler, was bequeathed to the Providence Museum of Natural History. The piece, labeled as a "spear holder," was displayed in the museum's Pacific Hall from 1954 to 1972. Although it later appeared as part of a 1982 exhibit at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, the statue eventually was judged too valuable--it was appraised at $400,000--and museum security too poor to risk further display.

The museum had been looking to sell the piece on and off for a decade. Last year it finally received an offer of $200,000 from a private Connecticut collector. The bid generated attention, and two other offers for the statue came in soon after that.

Within days of learning of the pending sale, however, a native Hawaiian group active in reclaiming Polynesian artifacts declared that the carving was a sacred object and subject to return under NAGPRA. The city of Providence, which owns the museum, refused, and the Hawaiian group appealed to the NAGPRA Review Committee, a seven-member board set up to broker such disputes.

To date, the review committee has been asked to resolve only five disagreements, although it expects to become busier as Native American groups begin claiming more valuable artifacts, says Tim McKeown, the National Park Service official in charge of interpreting the new law. The first two disputes heard by the board, in 1993 and 1994, were over Hawaiian human remains held by the Hearst Museum, in Berkeley, and by a Marine Corps base in Hawaii. Both were decided in favor of the Hawaiians.

In 1995, a descendant of the Kiowa chief Satanta claimed he was entitled to a shield thought to be owned by the chief, and held by the Hearst Museum. The museum refused and the case went to the NAGPRA review committee, which ruled that the man was indeed related to Satanta--but that any evidence that the shield belonged to the chief was unconvincing. The Hearst Museum kept the piece.

The fourth case, which the committee heard last fall, involved a dispute between three branches of the Oneida tribe, two from the U.S. and one from Canada. All claimed a wampum belt as a cultural icon central to their historical record. The question of who ultimately will own the belt, which is now part of a collection in Chicago's Field Museum, has yet to be resolved.

The case of the Providence/Polynesian spear holder was heard by the NAGPRA committee last November. After testimony from various scientists, it sided with the Hawaiians, ruling that the statue was not merely a spear holder but a sacred object "needed by traditional Native Hawaiian religious leaders for the practice of traditional Native Hawaiian religion by its present-day adherents."

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