Arctic Science Journeys
Alaska Native Remains Returned
STORY: In 1879, famine struck the village of Kukulik (KOO-KOO-LIK), a Siberian-Yupik Eskimo village near the present-day village of Savoonga on Alaska's St Lawrence Island. Too weak to properly bury their dead, villagers turned their sod houses into morgues that over time became sacred gravesites. Sixty years later, archeologist Otto Geist arrived on the island and, without seeking permission from area Natives, dug up the graves. The bones, skulls, and artifacts he removed were sent to Fairbanks, to be studied at a new museum Geist helped establish on the University of Alaska campus.
Recently, the University of Alaska Museum returned the remains of 92 villagers taken from the Savoonga area, as well as the remains of nearly 300 others buried up to 1,000 years ago in the nearby village of Gambell. Vera Metcalf is a Siberian-Yupik Eskimo from St. Lawrence Island who led the fight to put an old wrong right.
"Well, I was born and raised in Savoonga, St. Lawrence Island, so I have a lot of family ties in connection to the island. Personally, I feel that the return of human remains and eventually artifacts is more than just the return. I know it will be the closing of a chapter to a painful time of an era when archeologists came and took many of the remains without the community's full awareness and consent."
The St. Lawrence Islander remains were returned under a 1990 federal law called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The law requires federal agencies and museums that receive federal funding to catalog their collections of Native American remains and artifacts and inform Native groups of what they have. Native groups then have the right to petition for their return. For the University of Alaska Museum, that meant cataloging the remains of 900 humans and three-quarters of a million artifacts. Gary Selinger is in charge of the museum's repatriation program.
"Sometimes an individual is represented by one bone, they are not necessarily full skeletons. There's a lot of skulls. Archeologists always wanted to collect skulls because those were the things they were measuring to determine ethnic origins. So there's a lot of skulls, and a lot of times only one bone, two bones would be found from an individual."
The remains were valued by early archeologists for what they revealed about the origins of humankind--whether or not Eskimos are the direct descendants of Eurasians thought to have crossed a land bridge that once linked Russia with the North American continent.
Even with those questions now largely answered, many museums at first resisted efforts to return their archeological collections. While some museums view repatriation as a loss to science, Selinger believes his museum is gaining something even more valuable--trust.
"This law that some people thought was going to be very negative and going to raid museums and we were going to lose collections, has really turned out to be a really positive thing for our museum and I think a lot of that has to do with our attitudes, being very proactive and working very closely with Native groups in Alaska. People are feeling a little better as to who we are and what our attitudes are and there is some trust building. I don't think it's going to cause a big division like folks were really worried about."
Back on St. Lawrence Island, the residents of Savoonga have reburied their dead just as winter settled onto the land. Gambell residents plan to hold reburial ceremonies soon, and both villages are planning community celebrations. Vera Metcalf:
"The community celebration is probably going to be a combination of traditional and some form of religious church service, because St. Lawerence Island has also been influenced by western religion. I'm not sure what kind of celebration is planned, but I assume Eskimo dancing will be a part of this. I hope the elders will be consulted in planning the celebrations."
Early next year, the University of Alaska Museum plans to return to the villages of Golovin, Elim, and White Mountain the remains of about 200 people that were part of the Smithsonian Institution's collection. And within three years, the University of Alaska Museum plans to repatriate to some 40 villages the remains of 514 people still in its possession.
Reporting from Fairbanks, this is Debra Damron for Arctic Science Journeys.
Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
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