Colorado Native Americans' ancestors given public lands for reburials

After years in limbo, hundreds of Native Americans' remains will be going home. On Friday, state and federal officials joined tribal representatives at the State Capitol to sign a "Memorandum of Understanding" allowing for human remains housed in various museums and universities to be reinterred on public lands in Colorado. "These are people's remains that we honor, by finding a place to bury them that is appropriate," said Lieutenant Governor Joe Garcia, who oversees Colorado's Commission of Indian Affairs, at the December 13 ceremony.

This is a major victory for the state's Native Americans. At present, there are remains of approximately 600 individuals waiting to be reburied within Colorado. Aside from some secret locations within state parks, though, there have been few suitable places designated for burials. This agreement between the state, feds and tribes opens National Park Service lands and other federally owned parcels for reinternments and associated ceremonies and clearly defines the process by which reburials are done.

Under a 1990 law called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), federal agencies, museums and universities were required to identify any Native American remains or funerary objects within their collections. The law also dictated that these federally funded organizations consult with any Native Americans who have an interest in those items. The law finally gave native groups a say in how and where their ancestors should be buried and honored, while wresting control from museums and government agencies that had historically seen these human remains more as objects than as people.

One problem, though: In cases where the skeletons came from unknown locations, there was never a formalized process for how or where reburials were to take place. "It's one of those things where you write laws, you write regulations, but these were things that did not get defined," says Richard Wilshusen, Colorado state archaeologist Richard Wilshusen.

Ernest House Jr., the great-grandson of Jack House, the last hereditary chief of the Weeminuche Band, is the executive director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, which met last Friday before the signing. The effort to find places to rebury Native Americans in Colorado addresses a number of longstanding problems tribes have faced, he says.

One challenge is the sheer number of skeletons and associated artifacts. "We found colleges and universities teaching biology classes with them -- boxes and boxes of remains that professors were using as teaching tools," House says.

Colorado State Parks has allowed reburials on state land since the mid-2000s. Yet with the abundance of human remains awaiting reinternment, simple logistics have become a factor. "We don't want to overburden these [state park lands] that we have available," House notes.

Wilshusen adds that park staff and tribes have done a great job conducting reburials and ceremonies in secret locations throughout the state, but now more land is needed.

Reburying remains on tribal lands has long been a possibility, but that's also proven to be problematic. Pot hunters and looters are notorious throughout southwestern Colorado -- where the state's only reservations, the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute reservations, are located -- and offenders know that where there are burials, there are likely valuable grave goods.

House's reservation, for example, is nearly 600,000 acres in size and spreads across three states, but has little law enforcement -- and those officers are often handling serious crimes and have few resources to deal with looters. By opening up thousands of acres of public lands outside the reservation, House says, looting will hopefully wane.

More important, he adds, "tribes require that reburials happen closest to where they've been removed." This agreement streamlines the process to make that happen.

In Colorado, where the state history museum was purchasing Native American remains from pot hunters years ago, this is a staggering turnaround. Now Mesa Verde's original inhabitants may soon be returning to the national park.

The Memorandum of Understanding between the tribes and the federal and state governments sets a precedent, says Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Chairman Manual Hart. "The 566 federally recognized tribes now have a model they can look at," he says. Utah Governor Gary Herbert's office is meeting with tribal officials in January, and New Mexico is also considering similar cooperative agreements with tribes.

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Mark Sanders
Contact: Mark Sanders

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