Review committee rules for tribe over ancient remains

Brian Stockes
11/27/01

WASHINGTON ? A federal review committee ruled a set of 9,000-year-old remains found in a desert cave in Nevada are affiliated with a specific tribe and not unidentifiable as initially determined.

The decision was reached during the most recent meeting of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Review Committee, a federal body charged with overseeing implementation of the law.

Armand Minthorn of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation and a member of the committee said, "The evidence was clear. We made our decision based on all the facts at hand."

The remains of Spirit Cave Man were found in a shallow grave inside a cave in western Nevada on federal land under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management. He wore sandals and lay within a woven reed mat. The age of the remains were found to be approximately 9,400 years old, leading most to assume that it would be determined that he was Native American and possibly related to the local Paiute tribes.

However, after some anthropologists examined the remains and determined his facial features did not look Indian, his ancestry was brought into question and was caught up in the ongoing controversy about the "first" Americans, which includes a number of other remains such as the famous Kennewick Man and at least a half a dozen others.

The Fallon Paiute of Nevada claimed the remains as one of their ancestors and filed for their return. They based their assertion on their own historical knowledge, the items found with the remains, and the weave pattern of the mat in the grave. Despite this evidence, the BLM came to the conclusion the remains could not be culturally affiliated.

After reaching its 6 to 1 decision, the review committee recommended that the BLM reverse its earlier determination to one of cultural affiliation with the Fallon Paiute.

NAGPRA is the primary federal law which ensures that Native American human remains and sacred objects retained by federal, state, and local governments, universities and the museum community are returned to the appropriate tribes or descendants.

It also provides some protection for burial sites on tribal and federal lands. The review committee is a seven-member body established to oversee implementation, draft regulations and resolve disputes.

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