A long way home

When Native-American remains were unexpectedly found in the Slater Museum’s attic, there was never a question about returning them to their descendents. Finding those descendents was something else again

On a gray mid-January morning, just north of Portland, Ore., UPS Professor of Biology Peter Wimberger pulls his car into the parking lot of a rest stop off Interstate 5. Waiting for him in another vehicle are two men, members of the Klamath Tribes of Oregon, a group that Wimberger has had the unanticipated opportunity to become acquainted with over the past two years.

Wimberger steps out of his car and offers a handshake before moving on to the purpose of their meeting: the transfer of two boxes from his back seat to their truck.

It’s a scene that the casual observer would likely find unremarkable, but Wimberger has just closed the loop on a task of fairly weighty significance. An accidental discovery of human remains, a sometimes-controversial federal law, and a job running the UPS Slater Museum of Natural History all wound together to bring Wimberger to this moment.

Three years ago, not long after he assumed the role of director of the Slater, Wimberger initiated an inventory of the Slater’s attic, as he and his staff prepared to pack up the museum’s collection and, ultimately, move it to newly renovated space in Thompson Hall.

“In the process of doing so we ended up coming across these bags and boxes of human bones,” Wimberger recalls.

A surprising discovery—and one that kept growing.

“The more boxes we looked into, the more we found,” he says.

All in all, Wimberger and his staff discovered more than 20 sets of human remains, most of which had been given to the museum between the 1930s and 1960s. Some were labeled with minimal information about where they’d been unearthed. The origin of others was a complete mystery.

Gary Shugart, the museum’s collections manager, realized that discovery of the remains might call into effect a federal law passed in 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA. Under the law, if any of the remains turned out to be Native American, the museum would be required to return them to “culturally affiliated” Indian tribes, or if enough information was present with the remains, to the lineal descendents. Museums are to use the evidence at hand—including geographical, archaeological, historical, oral tradition, and so on—to determine which tribe or tribes share a group identity with the remains.

NAGPRA has been the source of tension between anthropologists, who are eager to study remains for what they can tell about human prehistory, and tribal members, who are anxious to protect the bones and sacred objects of their ancestors.

Perhaps the best-known example of this tension involves Kennewick Man, the more-than-9,000-year-old skeleton found along the banks of the Columbia River in 1996. A five-tribe coalition claimed Kennewick Man as their ancestor and sought to rebury him, but the remains are so old that a cultural link to a modern tribe has not been established.

More recently, tempers have been flaring at the University of California, Berkeley, where several tribes gathered last October to protest the alleged politics of NAGPRA compliance at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology. In January the Los Angeles Times reported that of 12,000 individual sets of Native-American remains at the Hearst Museum, only about 260 have been repatriated. According to the article, the university says it’s working as fast as it can under the law and defends its decision last summer to eliminate a small team dedicated to the NAGPRA process in favor of folding the task into the museum’s overall operations. (That reorganization was the flash point that sparked the October rally.)

“Anthropologists, especially physical anthropologists, see these remains as sources of information about ways of life,” says Wimberger. “For them, what repatriation represents is a loss of cultural information.” But, he says, from the perspective of Native Americans, “Essentially, [they] feel like their graves were robbed. And for them the final resting place is important for that person’s spirit.”

Some tribes may also see repatriation of remains as potentially influencing tribal hunting, fishing, and timber rights.

“[A NAGPRA] determination acknowledges affiliation of one particular group to one particular geographic area,” says Megon Noble, NAGPRA coordinator at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, who helped Wimberger with the NAGPRA process. “The tribe’s concern is that it will set a precedent—a federal recognition of a certain landscape associated with certain people and the resources that go along with that, because tribes are still battling for their natural resource rights.”

For Wimberger and his crew the first step in deciding the fate of the remains they’d discovered was to determine if in fact NAGPRA was called into play. That is, they had to find out whether any of the remains were Native American in origin. To do so, they hired physical anthropologist and osteologist Sean Tallman.

Tallman’s initial task was to determine how many individuals were represented by the remains discovered in the Thompson attic. To do this, he first looked at the number of repeated elements among the bones. “If you have two arm bones,” Tallman says, “you have to determine if they are from one individual or two, so you need to ‘side’ the bones—that is, figure out if you’re looking at a right or a left. Then you’re going to look at the development or age of the bones, the age at which the individual died. … If two bones are the same, but one is from a very young person and one is from a very old person, that tells you you’re dealing with two separate individuals.”

Next, Tallman noted the condition of the remains, in an effort to get a sense of the burial environment and whether the individuals had suffered trauma before death. Ultimately, he moved on to determining ancestry—one of the more difficult aspects of the analysis, he says.

According to Tallman, the mystery of ancestry is generally revealed by the skull. But because no single trait or combination of traits definitively indicates a given ethnicity, “you have to look at as many different traits as you can,” he says. “The slope of the eyes, how large the nasal opening is, how protruding the cheekbones are.” The teeth can also help solve the puzzle. “Generally, the very front teeth are shovel shaped in Native-American and Asian populations,” says Tallman.

The most telling clue, though, may be found in the overall shape of the skull. Some Northwest tribes practiced cultural manipulation of the skull. In such a case, “the back of the head would be slightly flattened, either purposely, or from cradle boarding, where an infant is attached to a board to be carried.”

Ultimately, it was found that the Slater Museum held the remains of 28 individual Native Americans. In the language of NAGPRA, the issue of “cultural affiliation” now had to be addressed. In other words, where did these individuals come from?

If the bag or box the remains had been discovered in was accompanied by an indication of where the remains had been initially uncovered—and if that location fell within the recognized historical territory of a modern tribe—“Those are things that make it easy,” says Wimberger.

One tool that Wimberger and his team found particularly helpful was a geographic information system database, built by Megon Noble’s team at the Burke Museum. Using historical and legal documents, accounts from ethnographers, and information provided by the tribes themselves, the Burke created a digital map, outlining historic areas of tribal use.

Of course, it wasn’t always as easy as consulting the map.

One set of remains had been found in the university’s comparative sociology department and passed to the Slater in a box marked only with a number and the words “ Western Washington Man.”

“The number looked like it could have been an accession number from the Washington state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation,” Wimberger recalls. “They have records of all excavations they’ve done in the state. And so we ended up having Sean Tallman go down to their office and check through all the records to see if in fact at that site [indicated by the number] any remains had been recorded.”

In the end, the trail proved cold. The number was associated with a shell midden, and there were no records of remains having been discovered there. Today the bones are still culturally unidentified.

Other cases were less frustrating. Historical consultant and archaeologist Paula Johnson, who worked with the Slater to help deduce the tribal origins of three sets of remains, remembers a set discovered in 1956 at Connell’s Prairie in Pierce County by two men digging holes for fence posts. The men had filed a sheriff’s report on the discovery, and the sheriff had donated the remains to the Slater.

“It’s a little bit unusual for some of these cases to have that sort of precise information,” says Johnson. “So we just tried to learn as much as we could about the history of that spot.”

Johnson learned from an 1856 newspaper account that there had been a battle on that site—part of the 1855–1856 Treaty Wars between various tribes and the U.S. government—with 20 to 30 Native American casualties. Additionally, a glass bead was discovered with the remains, likely dating them to the 1800s, when such beads would have been available at places such as Fort Steilacoom. (NAGPRA does not allow for initiation of new scientific studies on remains—so no carbon dating, which tribes consider a desecration.) Finally, Tallman’s investigation of the remains revealed that the individual suffered blunt-force trauma at or around the time of death—the defects in the bone were similar in color to the surrounding, undamaged bone, indicating that they hadn’t occurred after burial, and there were no signs of healing.

“We don’t know for sure if this individual found in the museum was from this battle, but we do know that Native Americans died there. And the evidence shows this individual may have died violently,” says Johnson. “So a preponderance of the evidence showed this person may have died during a known battle on Connell’s Prairie.”

As the Native Americans who fought in the Treaty Wars were members of what is today the Muckleshoot, Nisqually, and Puyallup tribes, the remains were repatriated jointly to that trio.

To date, the Slater Museum has culturally identified 20 individual sets of remains and repatriated 12 of them to their tribes of origin. Eight additional sets have been deemed culturally unidentifiable. (When Wimberger was on sabbatical leave last year, Associate Dean Alyce DeMarais helped keep the process moving.) A proposed regulation aimed at instructing museums and federal agencies on the disposition of unidentifiable remains has been published in the Federal Register, and comments on the rule are under review. The review process could take months—or longer.

In the meantime, Wimberger looks back on the unexpected sleuthing and hard work that came about because of his explorations in the Thompson attic. As he sees it, the museum hasn’t just complied with the law—it’s fulfilled an important moral obligation by returning remains to their rightful caretakers. As he stands over one box of bones still stored in his office—those of one juvenile and one adult—he muses. “It’s easy to wonder what their lives were like,” he says. “I’m guessing some of them are pretty old, possibly living before European contact.”

For those individuals, it’s been a long trip. Thanks to Wimberger and his staff, though, their spirits can soon return home.

— M. Susan Wilson