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The Earliest Americans | News and Comment

Three Ancient Skeletons Are Slated for Repatriation

Originally posted 06/03/1999

by Cleone Hawkinson

In the coming weeks, three ancient skeletons, whose cultural affiliation is not established with any living people, will be given to a coalition of Minnesota Sioux tribes, along with a collection of historically and culturally affiliated human remains. These three skeletons, known as the Minnesota Woman (or Pelican Rapids Woman, 7840 BP), Browns Valley Man (8,900 BP), and Saulk Valley Man (about 4,000 BP) are under the care of Hamline University, Saint Paul, Minnesota. They have been included in a repatriation agreement with Minnesota's Indian Claims Commission and will be repatriated under NAGPRA, a federal law.

Representatives from Hamline University are anxious for this activity to remain quiet, and they hope to avoid public scrutiny. They do not want to jeopardize relationships with local tribes and evidently are willing to ignore or possibly bend laws protecting these ancient national treasures in the name of political correctness. NAGPRA only applies to culturally affiliated human remains held in federal collections. To date NAGPRA does not apply under state laws or private ownership.

The Sioux tribes who are slated to receive these remains are probably no more closely related to these ancient skeletons than anyone else living today. The Sioux's origins have been traced to Late Woodland mound groups to the south, so they have been in the present area less than 1,000 years. Their oral traditions tell them they have been here since the beginning of time, although their description of 'here' is vague. These ancient human remains, many thousands of years old, are included with remains that are a few hundred years old. All will be reburied.

A distinction must be made between culturally affiliated human remains (those whose relationship to a living group is clear) and remains that are so old that their cultural relationship to anyone cannot be established. Why should one group's religious beliefs be honored at the expense of all other world views? This evidence of the past belongs to the world. The story of human migration into the continents of North and South America is of interest to people far beyond the political boundaries of a tribe, state, or even our nation. All people have a right to understand and explore many world views of the past.

Across our nation, the ancient past is threatened by the simple, but unfounded assumption that all people living here before white contact are related to modern day American Indians. This assumption also includes the notion that modern day tribes have not moved from their current location in thousands of years. Simple explanations of the past do not adequately address the complexities that are suggested by the evidence at hand.

This censorship (in the form of political correctness) will prevent anyone from asking new questions about the past. One culturally unaffiliated ancient skeleton after another is targeted for reburial and the treasure of knowledge each holds about the past will be lost forever. The fate of the most publicized ancient skeleton, Kennewick Man, has not yet been determined by a federal court. The Buhl Woman (10,700) from Idaho was reburied in 1992. Wizards Beach (9,200) and Spirit Cave (9,400), both from Nevada, are in jeopardy. These and other, less well publicized skeletons, especially those from Minnesota, deserve our attention before they are lost forever.

If you are concerned about one view limiting expression of all views, please voice your concerns to Hamline University (651) 523-2800, the officials of the state of Minnesota, your senate and congressional representatives, and your local newspapers.

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