Repatriation of Remains a Lengthy Affair in West Virginia

The process Native American tribes had to go through to get ancestral remains repatriated to them was a lengthy one.

On January 31, 2011, construction workers discovered American Indian skeletal remains on what would be the future site of a state office building in Logan, West Virginia. When Seneca Nation of Indians Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) Representative G. Peter Jemison was asked to help the Eastern Shawnee find a resting place for the remains, Jemison had no idea the journey he would undertake.

Because there were only a few sets discovered initially, Jemison and the Seneca Nation agreed to assist the Eastern Shawnee, who did not have sufficient resources for proper repatriation. However, when construction continued at an additional location and more remains were discovered over the course of 10 months, Jemison and the Seneca Nation would end up collecting and repatriating a total of 44 sets of American Indian skeletal remains.

According to Jemison, the process of repatriation was an overly lengthy, complicated and frustrating one that could have been prevented had there been state policies in place. He also said members of the Seneca Nation and many of other tribal groups involved have been “extremely upset.”

“I have never been involved in anything where that many remains had to be moved as a result of a construction project,” said Jemison. “When we talked to the West Virginia state officials, we said, ‘this is really not business as usual for us. It is not for us to help you do whatever you please with construction and when you run into human remains you keep working.”

According to West Virginia Department of Administration Communication Director Diane M. Holley-Brown, proper protocols were followed immediately after the discovery of remains and since there was no federal funding associated with the project, NAGPRA guidelines and laws, (the process for museums and federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items such as human remains, funerary objects and other sacred objects to tribes), did not apply.

“The proper protocol when human remains are found is to contact the local law enforcement having jurisdiction in the area,” Holley-Brown said.

“The local law enforcement initially confirmed that remains had been found, then followed their proper procedure and contacted the State Chief Medical Examiner to investigate the death. The Chief Medical Examiner’s office utilizes the Smithsonian Institution to do their forensic anthropology. After examination, the Smithsonian gave the initial indication that the remains were not the result of a recent crime and were likely Prehistoric Native American.”

Holley-Brown said the State Historic Preservation office (SHPO) was then contacted and the Department of Administration began following state and federal protocols for removal and relocation of the remains. The General Services Division contracted with an independent archeological firm (GAI Consultants, out of Charleston, West Virginia, to provide the archaeological services necessary to continue the project.

Although several state and local agencies became involved with the process, it wasn’t until February 22, 2011 when a West Virginia private resident contacted the Eastern Shawnee Cultural Preservation office that American Indian tribes were made aware of the situation. The Eastern Shawnee contacted the SHPO on March 3, 2011.

Once the Eastern Shawnee contacted the SHPO, they formally invited several tribes to participate in an Ad Hoc Burial Committee on March 7, 2011. The Seneca Nation was among the tribes invited.

West Virginia Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer Susan M. Pierce said the remains should be treated appropriately and local and state agencies should work together to protect the remains from being disturbed more.

“I think hindsight is 20/20 and there are certainly ways that the department of administration could have made it go more smoothly. This is all part of our universal heritage,” said Pierce.

Since the Shawnee said they didn’t have the resources, Jemison and Seneca tribal members agreed to help. They became part of the Ad Hoc Burial Committee and agreed to handle the repatriation of what were at first just a few sets of remains.

As part of the committee, Jemison says none of this should have happened. “If there had been laws in place to protect sacred burial sites, these skeletal remains could have been left undisturbed instead of being repatriated to the Seneca Nation and construction allowed to continue.

According to Jemison, officials involved with the process at regional and state levels had reasons to believe remains could have been discovered, but did not implement preventative measures appropriately.

A Logan Banner article from March 25, 2011, has comments from Logan Police Chief E.K. Harper and Logan Mayor Serafino Nolletti indicating prior knowledge of skeletal remains that could have been discovered. This supports Jemison’s claims, regarding knowledge of the existence of remains and the discovery of American Indian remains at the second construction project.

When asked about the second stage of construction of a nearby parking lot, Holley-Brown wrote, “A surface parking lot located across the street from the building has already been modified to avoid disturbing original soil. There will be a remote parking area a couple of blocks away from the site.” She added that archaeologists would be involved to ensure that cultural resources were not disturbed.

Jemison said there was no sign of any preventative measures taken. “What we discovered in the process of working with the state of West Virginia is that there is no requirement for a construction project to do archaeology before construction begins. This led to the inadvertent discovery of the remains,” says Jemison.

“We were told by an [undisclosed] individual working for the state in an e-mail that there was a probability that more human remains would be found. We then got a phone call from a Mr. Ferguson who works in the governor's office telling us that the man who contacted us did not know what he was talking about, they did not know where he got his information and he was wrong.”

Jemison said he suspects state officials are not divulging everything. He was concerned construction crews may have discovered more remains, but kept it quiet and kept working.

As of Labor Day 2011, the final count was 44 remains that the Seneca Nation had to retrieve.

With the repatriation of so many remains by the Seneca Nation—that was initially started as a favor to the Eastern Shawnee—Jemison described his last correspondence with state officials. “Believe me I lost my patience with them the last time I talked to them and I think they got the message loud and clear that we are not stupid and this is a completely unacceptable situation that they have created.”

After the last sets of remains were repatriated to the Seneca Nation and when Seneca representatives arrived in West Virginia, a meeting with Governor Earl Ray Tomblin was arranged. Jemison said representatives were only afforded a few minutes with the governor, which accomplished relatively little.

Tomblin did offer his comments:

“West Virginia is a state rich in heritage and history and as such, we are especially considerate of everyone who came before us. Therefore, it was unfortunate that some communication with the Seneca Nation did not occur in the manner they may have expected. It was with utmost respect that the Department of Administration and the State Historic Preservation Office were charged with the responsibility of repatriating the features found, in accordance with NAGPRA guidelines and the Seneca Nation’s heritage and tradition.”

On February 20, 2012 the Logan Banner reported that the new building would be completed in September 2012. When Jemison stated the need for an educational component in the new building addressing the Native American remains found at the beginning of construction, Holley-Brown agreed.