Overdue repatriation in ;holding pattern'

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West Virginian Native remains await NAGPRA review

WASHINGTON - The remains of about 600 American Indians left to sit on shelves for decades in the basement of an anthropology building at Ohio State University - after almost being thrown away in the garbage - are close to making their way home.

But they;re not there yet.

First, as called for under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a seven-member review committee must determine the legitimacy of an agreement to have them returned to their home place of present-day Buffalo, W.Va. The agreement stems from talks between lawyers at Ohio State and those from Putnam County, which is home to Buffalo.

''We're in a holding pattern right now,'' Earle Holland, a research spokesman with the university, said. ''We, as much as anyone, want to see these remains get their due respects after all these years.''

Since 1990, NAGPRA has offered a process for learning institutions, museums and federal agencies to return certain Native remains and cultural artifacts to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated Indian tribes that request repatriation.

In this case, no tribes or lineal descendents came forward to claim the remains, which are believed to have originated in a village of the Fort Ancient culture that could date back to A.D. 1200. Holland said OSU never performed research on the remains, which consist largely of bone fragments, beyond cataloguing and holding them. They are currently being held in close to 150 boxes.

A group of concerned Indians and non-Indians from West Virginia first contacted OSU about getting the remains returned to Buffalo for reburial in the early 2000s. At that time, the university used NAGPRA as a way to circumvent retrieval, since no member of the group could prove they were direct descendents of the remains.

''We were under the impression then that NAGRPRA only allowed for return of remains only to federally recognized tribes, or direct descendents,'' Holland said.

Faced with that setback, a small group of Indians and non-Indians in the Buffalo community kept up with their campaign, eventually gaining an ally in Joseph Haynes, who began serving as a Putnam County commissioner in 2005.

''My interest in helping was piqued, so I stayed with it,'' Haynes said. ''It had been my understanding that Ohio State University wanted to relinquish control, but their hands were tied because they had no one to relinquish custodianship.''

He ultimately contacted the NAGPRA office in Washington, D.C., this year and was told that the Putnam County Commission could, in fact, garner custodianship under NAGPRA. Haynes soon contacted OSU with the news and the wheels were finally set in motion to get the remains returned.

Although the agreement on the table between the Putnam County Commission and OSU would technically bring custodianship to Putnam County, if approved by the NAGPRA review committee, Haynes is adamant that Indians are in charge.

''The commission is not trying to take control away from anyone,'' he said. ''We're not trying to dictate anything.''

Instead, the commission has contacted the American Indian Council of West Virginia, as well as other known tribal members who live in the Buffalo area, to see how they would like to proceed when and if custodianship is transferred from the university.

Indians in the area have made it clear that they'd like to see the remains reburied in a private ceremony with no publicity. Almost everyone familiar with the situation is very cautious of making the reburial into a tourist attraction. And no one wants amateur archaeologists to be able to dig them up once again.

The latest twist of fate involving the remains is just one in a series of mind-boggling circumstances since they were first unearthed. Soon after a West Virginia state archaeologist dug them up in the mid-1960s, they somehow ended up in the hands of a graduate student attending a small college in Pennsylvania. Later, they made their way to Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., and then on to the University of Toledo in Ohio.

The OSU connection was born about two decades ago when one of the institution's graduate students happened to be visiting the University of Toledo. He found himself near a refuse area and noticed several boxes of what looked like bones, ready to be thrown into the garbage. He asked whether he could have them, and their journey to OSU took place soon after.

Now that the remains are so close to being reburied, some Indians in the community loathe talking about them out of fear that something may go wrong at the last minute. The NAGPRA review committee could, after all, decide that custodianship should not be transferred.

Sherry Hutt, the national NAGPRA program manager, said that while the repatriation route the Buffalo remains have taken thus far is unique, it is not unheard of. ''It's actually becoming a big part of the committee review process to preside over cases like this,'' she said. ''But they don't approve every one.''

Assuming the agreement is approved, OSU would then have to publish a notice in the Federal Register announcing its intentions to relinquish custodianship to Putnam County. Then, after a 30-day waiting period, if no one objects to the plan, the remains could finally return home.

Despite all the bureaucracy, Haynes said his community is happy to be this close. ''We've been waiting 40 years, so we're not going to rush it now,'' he said.

The NAGPRA review for this case is scheduled for May 15 and 16 in De Pere, Wis.