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Nev. tribe wants ancient remains 'to come home'

Secretary of Interior Gale Norton is being asked to return the remains of a 10,000-year-old man to a Nevada tribe that has waited more than 60 years to rebury him.

Referred to as Spirit Cave Man, the bones were discovered on federal land in 1940 and later put on display at a Nevada museum. The Fallon-Paiute Shoshone Tribe, citing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990, sought their return.

But the Clinton administration in August 2000 turned down the request. The Bureau of Land Management, citing a whole host of factors, said the remains were indeed Native American but not culturally connected to the tribe.

That decision triggered a process that few government officials know how to handle. And it has left the tribe "frustrated" with the inaction, said the council member most familiar with the case.

"We're trying to keep it out of court," said Rochanne L. Downs. "We don't want to go there. But if we have to, we will."

A provision of NAGPRA created a special committee to handle disputes like the one involving Spirit Cave Man. Composed of experts in the tribal and scientific communities, the panel can hold hearings, take testimony and review evidence, all in the hopes of resolving ownership and control of human remains.

The problem is that no one at the Department of Interior is required to listen to the committee, which nearly a year ago voted 6-1 to repatriate the remains to the tribe.

"We've disagreed with that recommendation," said Pat Barker, BLM's Nevada State Office Archaeologist and the principal author of the Spirit Cave rulings. "Based on the evidence we have -- and there isn't new evidence -- we back our original decision."

The Fallon-Paiute Shoshone Tribe went before the NAGPRA committee in November of 2001 to make its case. Downs said the tribe brought experts, attorneys and elders all the way to Massachusetts to document a cultural relationship to Spirit Cave Man, who was found with sacred items still used by the tribe in burials today.

BLM officials didn't show up.

In the Federal Register notice announcing its vote, the review committee criticized Barker's office. Chairman Armand Minthorn wrote that the BLM failed to give a "fair and objective consideration and assessment of all the available information and evidence in this case."

Minthorn in an interview later said that Interior employees pressured the panel to include the views of the lone member who dissented. "It would be imperative that the committee maintain its original intent as guided by policies and statutes," he said. Minthorn's term ends this summer.

Barker points out that the source of the disconnect is NAGPRA itself, which doesn't make the review committee's recommendations final. "Congress has an opportunity to make it binding," he noted.

To Downs, answers like that aren't satisfactory. After the BLM balked at returning the remains, the tribe last November wrote Norton and asked her to settle the dispute.

She responded, but informed the tribe that she has sought advice from the BLM, which has already made up its mind. The BLM in turn told the tribe it would wait for a new set of regulations covering "culturally unidentifiable" remains to be finalized before acting.

Downs said the tribe is tired of the delays. "NAGPRA is human rights legislation," she said. "No other race in the United states is treated like this."

"We've done our part," she added. "All we want is our ancestor to come home."

Relevant Documents:
Determination of Spirit Cave Man | Spirit Cave Man: Biological Aspects | Federal Register Notice

Relevant Links:
Fallon-Paiute Shoshone Tribe - http://www.fpst.org
Spirit Cave Man, The Reno Gazette-Journal - http://www.rgj.com/news2/specials
Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Review Committee - http://www.cr.nps.gov/nagpra/REVIEW/INDEX.HTM

Related Stories:
Appeals court asked to stop Kennewick Man tests (01/23)
Kennewick Man battle heats up (10/29)
Tribes join Kennewick Man case (10/23)
Judge won't repatriate Kennewick Man (9/3)
An ancient Indian trust debacle (9/3)
Judge readies decision in Kennewick Man case (06/21)
Norton treads uncharted waters over remains (04/11)

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