A wall map in Rochanne Downs’ office depicts the ancestral homelands of the Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe people—a once-vast domain on the western side of the Great Basin now reduced to 28 scattered reservations and colonies across Nevada.
For millennia, Downs’ ancestors lived, died and were laid to rest in caves and other hidden places across the basins and ranges of the Silver State. Tradition says their spirits are on a trek along the “dusty trail”—the Milky Way—to the next world. In the course of 200 years, uncounted thousands of those journeys were interrupted when their remains and things buried with them were dug up and carted off to museums or universities. The finds were displayed as curiosities or studied like mammoth bones or Neanderthal fossils. For decades, researchers measured Native American skulls to support racist theories of white superiority.
The connection between the dead Natives and their living descendants was casually ignored.
“Some of our ancestors (bones) were used as note pads,” said Downs, a member of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, who now works to return Native American remains to Nevada tribes. An amateur archeologist drew a site map of a dig on one of the skulls Downs helped to repatriate.
Bones in museums have been painted with catalogue numbers and treated with toxic substances. Until recently, remains had the same status as rock samples in a geology class.
“These are humans,” Downs said. “They are people who had families. They are our people.”
After decades of legal battles and culture clashes, laws—and attitudes—are shifting. Native Americans’ concerns are being taken seriously; archeologists are working with the descendants of the people they have been studying. Human remains and objects from graves are being returned to tribes, but slowly.
A 1990 federal law requires agencies and institutions to return them. But as of this year, only about half of the more than 200,000 human remains stored at museums and other repositories in the U.S. and in Nevada have been repatriated.
Revised government regulations expected to be finalized later this year are aimed at accelerating the process. In addition, Indigenous people are telling their own stories and beginning to have a say in how their history and culture are presented to the public.
The University of Nevada, Reno, last year hired Downs to oversee UNR’s compliance with the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA); she serves as a bridge between the university and Nevada’s tribes. As the former cultural resources director for the Fallon Tribe, she has been involved in repatriation efforts since the law was passed. Those battles, she said, are far from over, but she sees a lot of positive movement in Nevada.
“It’s really great that the university wants to do the right thing,” said Downs, noting that UNR President Brian Sandoval has made repatriation of remains and artifacts housed at the institution a priority of his administration. She and others at the university’s Office of Indigenous Relations are working with anthropologists to complete a full review of the institution’s collections related to Native Americans.
“(There are) over 2,500 boxes that we’ll go through,” she said.
The contents of many are from donors who gave their collections to UNR. There also are recordings of Indigenous people made decades ago and other items that shed light on the lives and lifeways of the original people of the Great Basin.
“Oral traditions are the backbone of our history, and sharing and accessing these recordings is another way our elders have been able to share our traditions, history, songs, language and cultural knowledge,” Downs said. “They are another important mechanism to share our elders’ knowledge with our current and future generations.”
Once an ancestor’s remains are repatriated, the tribe involved determines where and how they will be reinterred. In most cases, she said, remains aren’t returned to their original burial place. That site could be unknown, Downs said, or could be unsafe, or subject to looting, or it may have been obliterated by construction.
“I want make sure that everything is safe, that the ancestors are safe,” said Downs. “We’ve relocated (repatriated remains) to a private location so they’ll be housed solely by themselves.”
It’s a complicated process, she explained, and long impeded by some government agencies, museums and universities that refused to comply with the law.
Only half of remains returned
ProPublica, a national investigative news organization, this year reported that three decades after NAGPRA was signed by President George H.W. Bush, the remains of more than 110,000 Native American, Native Hawaiian and Alaska Natives’ ancestors are still gathering dust in museums, universities and federal agencies. The sets of remains include major parts of skeletons, skulls and fragments of bone.
The Nevada State Museum, which has returned about 300 sets of remains to tribes over the last 20 years, still has 259 sets in its collections. Of those, 39 are the state’s responsibility. The remaining 220 are under the control of federal agencies. Those include 127 that are under the purview of the Nevada office of the Bureau of Land Management, which hasn’t repatriated any remains at all since 2010.
“It’s been 33 years since NAGPRA was enacted, and I really believe we should be a lot further,” Downs said.
Some universities, institutions and individuals have looked at NAGPRA as compromise legislation, she noted, rather than as a mandate. But the tribes, Downs said, see the 1990 law “as human rights legislation.”
For more than 200 years, collecting the remains of dead Native Americans was a common practice. In the 1800s, the bones of Indians were gathered from battlefields and massacre sites like Wounded Knee, S.D., to be shipped to the U.S. Army Medical College and museums. Franz Boas, considered the father of American anthropology, collected and sold Indian skulls to help pay for his field work. “It is most unpleasant work to steal bones from a grave,” Boaz wrote in his diary in June 1888, “but what is the use, someone has to do it.”
Indigenous people were excluded from white society, but once dead, their skulls, bones and possessions were prized by the dominant culture as curios or objects of scientific inquiry.
“As human beings, we haven’t been valued, but our cultural items are highly valued,” said Michon Eben, historic preservation officer at the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, “You go to any museum and you’ll have natural history, dinosaurs, and Native Americans. We’re a curiosity, a theory to be studied.”
Eben saw firsthand how some museums treated and used Indian remains during visits to Harvard University’s Peabody Museum. She said she and other tribal members were horrified to see catalogue numbers painted on skulls stored in file cabinets. In 2012, Downs, on behalf of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, helped repatriate remains that originated in Northern Nevada.
Beginning in the late 19th century, Harvard anthropologists conducted studies on Indian skulls to support the now-discredited field of eugenics, in an attempt to assert the superiority of white people over other ethnicities. The skulls of Native Americans and other ethnic minorities were compared to the craniums of Caucasians, who were considered to be at the top of a racial hierarchy. Those theories were used by Nazis to justify the attempted genocide of Jews, disabled people and others they considered “unworthy of life.”
Harvard scientists, Eben said, measured Indian skulls for decades.
“It was sick,” she said. “It’s a sick policy, sick thinking, junk science. And why was it that our Native American human remains are ‘less than’?”
Traditional knowledge, she noted, was dismissed as myths and legends, while non-Native researchers shaped theories based on their own—and society’s—stereotypes and biases.
Archaeologist Diane L. Teeman, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at UNR, said she began studying that science to help her community navigate the maze of historical and legal issues that affect Indigenous people. Teeman is a member of the Burns Paiute Tribe in Burns, Ore., chairwoman of the tribal council and its cultural and heritage director. She noted that Native Americans were not consulted or notified when laws affecting them were being written and had no voice in telling their own stories. She is helping to change that paradigm.
“At the University of Oregon, they were continuing to drag out our ancestors’ bones to put them on metal trays for the students to fondle and learn about Native American human osteology,” she said. “I don’t think they do that anymore.”
In field studies, archaeologists mined the remnants of ancient communities and emptied graves while ignoring the voices of tribal people.
“But (now) there’s a growing number of archaeologists who see the value, and can empathize with the power dynamics between mainstream Western science and tribal communities that have been marginalized through colonialism,” Teeman said. Some scientists now design research projects that have value for tribal communities and are done in a way that is culturally appropriate, or at least culturally acceptable, she said.
In 2019, Teeman and Sarah E. Cowie, an associate professor of anthropology at UNR, launched what may have been the first Native-taught archeological field school with all Native American students. The course, accredited through UNR, was conducted on the campus of the Stewart Indian School in Carson City. Stewart was among more than 400 Indian boarding schools nationwide aimed at erasing students’ tribal identities and “assimilating” them into American society.
“That (Stewart field school) was the only time where I felt that I and the students—Natives who are studying archaeology—were able to fully express themselves in a way that was going to be completely heard and completely valued without some of the colonial attitudes and power struggles that can happen in other conversations,” Teeman said.
A question of power
In the 30 years since the repatriation law was passed, Teeman noted, the government agencies and institutions “still hold most of the power in assessing whether someone is Native American (and) whether someone’s going to be repatriated.” Those entities often want to retain remains for future study, she said, and consider tribal funerary, ceremonial and cultural objects as their property.
“The repositories covet those items; they covet our ancestors’ bones,” Teeman said. “I think it’s improved some, but that (attitude) still needs to be addressed.”
Some critics define the conflict over remains and artifacts as pitting scientific inquiry against tribal mythology and tradition. They worry that if Native Americans have too much control over how archeology is conducted, efforts to understand the ancient history of North America will grind to a halt. Anthropology students, they argue, will abandon those studies to specialize in the archeology of other countries that have fewer restrictions.
Prof. Kent Lightfoot, an archaeologist at the University of California, Berkeley, doesn’t agree. He and others in academia are developing new methodologies that are sensitive to tribal concerns and can be done in partnership with Indigenous people.
“What we’re trying to do is a kind of archaeology which is not destructive and where we can be fairly precise (with) where we’re working and what we’re uncovering,” he said. “We’re making it so that it’s of interest—and of utility and of significance—to the tribes we’re working with.”
Traditionally, he said, archaeology was similar to exploratory surgery: cutting into a site without knowing what may be found. Trenches were carved with backhoes or shovels.
“That was destructive,” he said. “They would really destroy places where they shouldn’t have been excavating, like burials and other things. And this was done back in the day when we didn’t work with tribes, and there wasn’t any real collaboration.”
Lightfoot said that hearing tribal peoples’ concerns led to “rethinking that whole methodology.” Today, before doing any excavation or sub-surface work, archeologists first look at the surface and near-surface of a site, he said. They use new technologies including ground-penetrating radar, satellite imagery, light detection and ranging sensors (LiDAR), and magnetometers. Like modern surgeons, they rely on non-invasive techniques rather than hacking away at a patient just to see what’s beneath the skin.
In addition, he said, archeologists typically no longer collect artifacts from dig sites.
“But we will analyze them in place, and again, this is done in partnership with the tribes,” Lightfoot said.
Research teams first ask if tribal members want to do excavation, and if so, where. For example, he said, if traces of buried ancient dwellings are spotted by radar, is there potential value in unearthing one of the buried structures to get a sense of what it looks like? If so, the archeologists can then make that case to the tribe involved.
“It’s a very different kind of process than what has been done in the past,” he said. “… We’re getting to a point where we’ve got it pretty well refined.”
A 10,600-year-old Nevadan
Between 1994 and 2016, Nevada was the epicenter of a repatriation conflict that made headlines world-wide. The case involved the mummified remains of a man who testing showed was laid to rest about 10,600 years ago in Spirit Cave, a rock shelter in Churchill County. The Nevada State Museum had stored the man’s remains in a box since the 1940s and commissioned carbon-14 dating tests in 1994, four years after the passage of the repatriation law. Because the cave is on federal land, the BLM controlled the disposition of the remains.
The carbon-14 testing—done without tribal permission—revealed the Spirit Cave man’s antiquity. BLM officials ruled that his remains and two other cremated sets of remains removed from Spirit Cave were not “culturally affiliated” with any modern tribal people. In other words, the agency decided there was no evidence connecting the dead man to the tribe that wanted to rebury him. The ancestor remained in a box in Carson City; a legal battle stretched across two decades.
Downs, now at UNR, was the cultural resource officer for the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone tribe, which took the lead for repatriation on behalf of all of the Great Basin tribes. She was on the team that assembled evidence to prove the man from the cave was a forebear. The ancestor, who lived at the tail end of the Ice Age when the Fallon area was a wetland, was found with a rabbit-skin blanket, tule mats and other objects familiar to today’s tribal members.
“I’m a Toi Ticutta, which is a ‘tule eater’ from Fallon; we lived by the marsh, so all the items Spirit Cave man had were things we can name,” Downs said. “In the Great Basin … tribes were nomadic. We lived in small groups. We traveled all around following resources.”
People were buried near where they died. Tribal tradition holds that the dead must be left in peace and allowed to make the long trek to the next world unmolested.
“Traditionally, when you put somebody away, you don’t talk about them,” Downs said. “You don’t go back and visit, because you want them to go on their journey,”
In the Spirit Cave case, experts testified for and against repatriation; the tribe offered evidence; and a federal review committee twice sided with the Native Americans. Lawsuits were filed, and the BLM repeatedly refused to explain its decision. A federal court in Reno later found the agency’s positions “arbitrary and capricious.” Judge Larry R. Hicks speculated its officials “purposely obstructed” the repatriation process. Spirit Cave man was “Native American,” BLM officials admitted, but not affiliated with any modern-day tribe. That sounded like double-talk to frustrated tribal members.
“Well, what does a modern-day Indian look like?” asked Downs.
In 2016, the tribe agreed to allow DNA testing of the Spirit Cave remains with the caveat that he and the other associated remains and artifacts be returned to the tribe afterwards. The results: The man had a DNA signature that exists among the Indigenous people of North and South America—and nowhere else on the planet. Although he was not found to be directly related to any modern populations, he was an Ice Age ancestor of countless Native people.
In 2018, the ancient one was buried in a hidden place with ceremonies. He resumed his celestial journey.
“The Spirit Cave remains were finally laid to rest,” Downs said proudly.
Under One Sky
That controversy is resolved, but the Nevada State Museum lives with the fallout. Previous museum staff had permitted research on the remains after NAGPRA was passed, without consulting local tribes.
“That stigma follows us to this day with certain tribal members,” said Gene Hattori, the museum’s current curator of anthropology, “as well as (the stigma) of just being archaeologists, and housing archaeological collections.”
The case spurred the museum to collaborate with tribal people as it had not done before. Rather than devote an exhibit to the Spirit Cave remains, officials offered to work with tribal members on a display spotlighting their history, culture and traditions. The late Alvin Moyle, then the Fallon tribal chairman, accepted the proposal in a letter that suggested that all Northern Nevada tribes be honored in the exhibit. Moyle’s letter included the phrase “under one sky”—now the name of the exhibition, which opened in 2002.
Museum patrons viewing the exhibition hear recorded voices of Indigenous people speaking and singing in their mother tongues. Walls display life-size photos, both historic and more recent, of tribal members. One exhibit offers a peek inside a desert cave that sheltered generations of people. Artifacts include the tools and objects they created thousands of years ago. The exhibit presents both scientific and tribal perspectives side-by-side. Some critics complain Under One Sky gives traditional beliefs too much credibility; others insist it doesn’t go far enough in presenting Natives’ points of view.
“I deemed (the exhibit) a success because I got equal criticisms from tribal people and archeologists that I know,” Hattori said.
When NAGPRA passed in 1990, officials predicted that repatriation would be completed in about seven years. Three decades later, tribes are still waiting, but positive changes are taking place.
Nevada lawmakers recently mandated that state officials adopt repatriation procedures previously hammered out by museum staff and tribal representatives. Changes in federal rules expected this year are aimed at eliminating obstacles to returning remains and objects in collections. The Nevada State Museum has a full-time staff member dedicated to NAGPRA repatriations. And, for the first time, an Indigenous person—Josh Bonde, a member of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone—is director of the museum.
BLM officials told the RN&R that they are “updating their records” relating to the 127 sets of remains the agency controls, and that they are committed to repatriating them.
Downs, who was on the team that created Under One Sky, is hopeful that the federal law will at long last do the job it was created to do—reunite ancestors with their own people without tribes having to navigate a maze of politics, contradictions and controversy.
“I learned from many elders and traditional leaders along this journey that tribes are not to fight amongst ourselves over repatriation of our ancestors,” she said. “We may not know who the individual is or where he came from, but what we do know is that the Creator knows.
“Our only job to get them back into the earth so they can get back on their journey—and the rest will take care of itself.”