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Indigenous remains returning to the Three Affiliated Tribes

Posted 2/17/23 (Fri)

By Shannon Marvel

The ancestral remains of more than 109 indigenous people removed from gravesites in Sully County are set to be returned to the Three Affiliated Tribes, according to a federal register notice.

The Three Affiliated Tribes, also known as the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, is located on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in central North Dakota.

The remains were removed by William Bass and crews from the Smithsonian Institution River Surveys in 1957, 1958 and 1961, and the University of Kentucky in 1962, according to a federal register notice.

"Following excavation, the burial remains were transferred to the Smithsonian Institution and examined by Bass, who served as physical anthropologist for the Smithsonian Institution’s Missouri River Basin Project," the notice stated. "The Sully site was one of the largest identified Arikara villages and contained four distinct cemeteries. The site dates to 1477—1678 CE. No known individuals were identified."

Sandra Barnum with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District, said the notice was published in the federal register in accordance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

"We publish a notice in the federal register after they've [the remains] been inventoried and tribes have been consulted with, and we've made a determination of affiliation," Barnum said.

The notice allows other tribal entities until March 3 to comment or file claims on the remains before they are turned over to the Three Affiliated Tribes.

"Once we publish this in the national register we notify tribes," Barnum said. "We have 28 tribes on our regular mailing list."

Dustin Lloyd, Burial Coordinator with the South Dakota State Historical Society, said determination of cultural affiliation is one of the final steps for an institution. 

Lloyd said that determination involves examining "geographical, kinship, biological, linguistic, folkloric, oral traditions, historical, expert opinion, consultation, and traditional cultural knowledge."

He added that the study does not need to be exhaustive, and reasonable gaps in information are to be expected.

"However, it does require three elements — a present-day Native American tribe or Native Hawaiian Organization, an identifiable earlier group connection to the cultural item or ancestral remains, and a relationship of shared group identity between the present-day Native American tribe or NHO and the earlier group," he said. 

Lloyd added that the process is important for a multitude of reasons. 

"But the most important reason is the focus on acknowledging, redressing, and repairing the past wrongs perpetrated against Indigenous peoples and being, as active as possible, a participant in the healing process," Lloyd said. 

For Tyrel Iron Eyes, tribal archaeologist for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the act of repatriation itself is a solemn one.

Iron Eyes explained that families have ceremonies to mourn and bury their ancestors but not to rebury them.

"We rebury them, but it's an unnatural thing," Iron Eyes said.

The best practices to protect the remains are in place, Iron Eyes said.

"Do not disturb them — leave them there. If that can't happen, then rebury them as close to where they were found and close as possible."

Iron Eyes said it's by far the least favorite part of his job.

"Part of me is very grateful that we get to bring ancestors home and hopefully let them rest. It's tough every single time," he said.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe will also work in collaboration with other tribes as much as possible, Iron Eyes said.

"There are some tribes that are a lot more ready to take on that responsibility. If it's something that isn't definitively tied to our people, we'll rally behind the tribe that wants to take the lead. The Three Affiliated Tribes is a good example of that," Iron Eyes said. "One of the things our office does is try to make sure we have as many affiliated tribes as possible involved so we're not making a decision for everyone."

Iron Eyes said he holds onto the hope and sense of relief of bringing his ancestors to rest after being disturbed for so long.

"And it's what keeps me going," he said.