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Federal agency shifts course as tribal ancestor in Nevada is slated for repatriation

The remains of the Spirit Cave Man and other tribal ancestors were found in an area near the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada. Photo by Charles Cornell

A long-running dispute over a tribal ancestor in Nevada appears to be coming to a close thanks to a shift in course by the Obama administration.

After two decades of debate, the Bureau of Land Management plans to repatriate the remains of a 10,000-year-old individual -- often referred to as the Spirit Cave Man -- to the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe. A notice published in the Federal Register on Tuesday confirms the ancestor is indeed Native American.

"DNA analysis illustrates that the human remains in the Spirit Cave Assemblage are effectively more closely related to Native Americans than they are to any other population," Melanie O'Brien, the manager of the National Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Program, wrote in the notice. "The associated funerary objects contained within the Spirit Cave Assemblage manifest characteristics of Native American ancestry, including a rabbit skin blanket, moccasins, and woven mats."

The decision caps off a controversy that dogged both the Clinton and Bush administrations. A federal judge at one point said federal officials "passed the issue up the chain of command" without ever providing a direct answer to the Paiute-Shoshone people.

"All we want is our ancestor to come home," Rochanne L. Downs, a former tribal council member who worked on the matter for years, told Indianz.Com back in 2003.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Review Committee met in Missoula, Montana, from July 13-16, 2016. Photo by Angela Steiner Neller‎

The issue was so contentious that it went before the NAGPRA Review Committee, a panel of experts that Congress created through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to weigh in on such disputes. But even when they said the remains should be returned to the tribe, the BLM did nothing, prompting the tribe to file the lawsuit.

In September 2006, a federal judge ruled that the BLM's failure to consider all of the tribe's evidence was "arbitrary and capricious." The Bush administration promptly appealed but the case was dropped a few months later with the tribe's agreement.

Still, the ancestor sat in limbo until the Interior Department in 2010 finalized long-awaited regulations regarding so-called "culturally unidentifiable" Native remains. The BLM's notice on Tuesday cited the new rule as the basis for initiating repatriation to the tribe.

The decision marks the second time this year that the Obama administration has sided with tribes in a dispute over ancient remains. Citing DNA and other evidence, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in April confirmed the 8,500-year-old individual known as the Kennewick Man was Native American.

The determination opened the door for the Pacific Northwest tribes to reclaim their ancestor, whom they refer to as the Ancient One, under the provisions of NAGPRA. But Congress also stepped in and is close to finalizing a national water bill that would return the remains to his descendants.

"The Colville Tribes, along with the other claimant tribes, has always known that the Ancient One was our ancestor, and it is only right that he should be laid to rest in his homeland in the traditional way," Chairman Michael Marchand of the Colville Tribes said last month. DNA from the Ancient One showed a direct relationship to modern-day Colville citizens.

Leaders of the Fallon-Paiute Shoshone Tribe were sworn into office on October 18, 2016. From left: Secretary Laura Ijames, Chairman Len George and council member Natalie Pacheco. Photo by FPST Election Committee

Despite the successes, some within the academic and scientific community continue to oppose the return of ancient remains to tribes. One anthropologist who has been repeatedly proven wrong about the Kennewick Man's Native origins even holds a top position within the Smithsonian Institution.

DNA studies, though, have been among the most conclusive evidence about the identities of some of the very first Americans. Remains dating back as far back as 12,600 years have been directly linked to modern-day Native populations.

Spirit Cave Man and other tribal remains were discovered in 1940 at Spirit Cave, an area near the Fallon-Paiute Reservation. The remains have been dated to be between 5,400 to 10,600 years old, according to the BLM.

Federal Register Notices:
Notice of Inventory Completion: U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Nevada State Office, Reno, NV (October 18, 2016)
Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Regulations-Disposition of Culturally Unidentifiable Human Remains (March 15, 2010)

From the Indianz.Com Archive
Judge faults BLM for decision on ancient remains (September 25, 2006)
Nev. tribe wants ancient remains 'to come home' (February 14, 2003)
Norton treads uncharted waters over remains (April 22, 2002)

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Senate passes water bill but fails to include #NoDAPL amendment (09/15)
Nominations sought for open position on NAGPRA review committee (08/01)
Former official admits he kept tribal ancestors in garbage bags (07/12)
Northwest tribes seek reburial of ancestor known as Ancient One (06/08)
DNA studies boost links between Native people and ancestors (05/18)
Northwest tribes inch closer to reburial of Kennewick Man remains (04/28)