This article was originally published in Indian Country Today Media.
After years in limbo, hundreds of Native American ancestors are going home. On December 13, state and federal officials joined tribal representatives to sign a Memorandum of Understanding, allowing for human remains housed in various museums and universities to be reinterred on public lands in Colorado.
This is a major victory for Native Americans of Colorado. At present, there are approximately 600 individuals waiting to be reburied within Colorado. Aside from some secret locations within state parks, 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 reinterments and associated ceremonies, and clearly defines the process by which reburials are done.
“These are people’s remains that we honor, by finding a place to bury them that is appropriate,” said Lieutenant Governor Joe Garcia at Friday’s ceremony.
Under a the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), federal agencies, museums, and universities are required to identify any Native American remains or funerary objects within their collections. The law also dictates that these federally funded organizations consult with any Natives 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. Colorado’s state archaeologist Richard Wilshusen says of these orphaned human remains, “It’s one of those things where you write laws, you write regulations, but these were things that did not get defined.”
Ernest House Jr. is the great-grandson of Jack House, the last hereditary chief of the Weeminuche Band. Today, Ernest House Jr. is the executive director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, the main organization addressing tribal needs within the state. The effort to find places to rebury Native Americans in Colorado, he says, addresses a number of longstanding problems tribes have faced.
One challenge is the sheer number of skeletons and associated artifacts. After the passage of NAGPRA, House says, “we found colleges and universities teaching biology classes with them—boxes and boxes of remains that professors were using as teaching tools.”
Colorado State Parks has allowed reburials on their land since the mid-2000s. Yet with the abundance of human remains awaiting reinterment, simple logistics have become a factor. House says, “we don’t want to overburden these [state park lands] that we have available.” 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 has also proven problematic. Pothunters and looters are notorious throughout southwestern Colorado (where 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 is nearly 600,000 acres in size and spreads across three states, but has little law enforcement. 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 importantly, he says, “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 pothunters 100 years ago, this is a staggering turnaround. 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.