HELENA, Mont. -- The Montana Burial Preservation Board recently voted
unanimously to adopt two rules regarding the discovery and care of human
remains found outside known cemeteries in the state.
The 13-member board, set up to include representatives from each of the
state's seven Indian reservations, the Little Shell Band of Chippewa
Indians and various other officials and private citizens, adopted a rule
stating that the place where human remains are discovered shall be deemed
an official burial site under state law unless contrary evidence proves
otherwise. The rule will more easily allow protective measures to be put
into place as needed.
The panel also voted to allow the tribal board member located closest to
future discoveries to act as a representative of the board when it comes to
deciding whether archeological research should be conducted to determine
the origins of the remains and whether the remains and related burial
objects should be moved or repatriated if they are deemed to be tribally
The new rules were prompted by an ongoing controversy in the northwestern
Montana city of Kalispell, where multiple sets of human remains have been
discovered near a popular city park. At least four sets of the bones have
in recent years been repatriated by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai
tribes, but Kalispell resident John Gisselbrecht maintains the bones were
improperly removed. Gisselbrecht also is calling for protections at the
site, at least a fence.
Kalispell City Attorney Charles Harball said protections will be put in
place if that is what the Salish and Kootenai tribes want. He added that
additional archeological work will be conducted by the tribes this spring
as part of an ongoing effort to determine the parameters of the burial
area, which may or may not include park land. So far, tribal officials have
indicated they don't want to do anything that would attract more public
attention to the site.
"We're just kind of waiting to follow their lead," Harball explained.
The board also took under advisement a proposed document spelling out the
steps taken when human remains are found, who was notified and when, and
the findings of a field review if one is conducted. The information remains
confidential under state law and would be compiled in the state's existing
burial registry so the place of interment is not disturbed by future
development or other activities.
Stan Wilmoth, the staff archeologist with the State Historic Preservation
Office and a member of the board, said the current burial registry is
incomplete, because "nobody is filling out records."
The board also reviewed a list of steps that must be taken under the 1991
Montana Human Skeletal Remains and Burial Site Protection Act when bones
are found on state or private land and they're determined to not be part of
a present-day crime scene. The discoveries of human remains, burial sites
or buried materials on federal land fall under the federal Native Graves
Protection and Repatriation Act.
Carl Fourstar, a Fort Peck tribal member and chairman of the board,
emphasized that all tribes in the state need to work in unison to ensure
that remains of their ancestors are treated with care and respect.
Fourstar said it's well-known that many different tribal groups moved in
and out of the region since time immemorial, and each entity had its own
ceremonial way of dealing with their deceased.
"Each tribe looks at things a little differently," he said. "Each tribe
does things a little differently. The main thing we're concerned about is
that if (remains) are going to be reinterred," the process be done with
respect and appropriate prayers to the Creator.
Fourstar, Wilmoth and others reiterated at the meeting that the preferred
option is to leave remains in place when they are found.
"To disturb them is sacrilege," explained George Reed Jr., the Crow Tribe's
representative on the panel.
Tony Incashola, director of the Flathead Reservation's Salish-Pend
d'Oreille Culture Committee and the Salish-Kootenai representative on the
board, noted that when cultural decisions need to be made, including
whether to repatriate remains found to have tribal ties, a group of 15 to
20 elders is consulted beforehand. He added that current culture committee
policy is to find out as much information as possible about a burial
discovery, in part because the knowledge helps determine the extent of the
region's ancestral homeland.
"When these remains are discovered, that helps us with the process," he
told the panel.