In a possible repeat of the Kennewick Man controversy, some Indian tribes are likely to assert a connection to the string of ancient settlements that have yielded mummified remains in Utah's remote Book Cliffs region.
But establishing a convincing relationship to the Fremont people, who vanished without a trace more than 1,000 years ago, could be as difficult as the Kennewick case has shown. That legal battle involves ownership of a 9,000-year-old skeleton found on the Washington bank of the Columbia River.
The Book Cliffs site in Utah has been dated as old as 4,500 years, and further study could show it was occupied 7,000 or more years ago, said Jerry Spangler, an archaeologist with the College of Eastern Utah, who also reports for the Deseret Morning News. That makes it harder to establish a link with modern tribes.
The settlements were kept secret for more than 50 years by a rancher who turned it over for public ownership and retired. As archaeologists and graduate students scoured Range Creek canyon for the past two summers, federal and state agencies also kept silent.
This past week, some of Utah's Indian leaders complained it was kept too quiet.
"I'm not surprised we weren't consulted or that there's thousands of human remains," said Forrest Cuch, director of Utah's Division of Indian Affairs and a Ute Indian, whose modern-day reservation is the closest of any tribe's to Range Creek.
Patty Timbimboo-Madsen, cultural resources manager for the Northwest Shoshone tribe, characterized the omission as a slight against all American Indians.
"We know our ancestors are out there somewhere. When you find them, out of respect, let the native people go in and do ceremonies because you have disturbed something that we think is sacred," she said.
The state and federal governments, and a trust that arranged the sale, were duty-bound to report human remains and sacred objects on the ancestral lands of the Northern Utes, said Melvin Brewster, historic preservation director for the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes.
"They need to bring in the traditional spiritual leaders," he said. "It looks like all this noncompliance went on."
Waldo Wilcox, the rancher who protected the Range Creek site, first disclosed the recovery of mummified remains to the Associated Press last week. But when archaeologists conducted a tour this past week, they kept reporters from viewing burial mounds or human remains.
State archaeologist Kevin Jones said that when researchers stumbled across human remains, they were leaving them in place covered with dirt. Because of secrecy, it's not clear how many skeletons have been found or removed from the site.
Cuch said the remains, some wrapped in beaver skin and cedar plank, could be his own ancestors. From time to time, his tribe along with the Goshutes and Pauite Indians has claimed Fremont ancestry.
Still, he concedes, the case could be hard to prove, just as Northwest Pacific tribes found when they asserted ownership over Kennewick Man, who was found washed up in 1996 with a spear point in his hip bone.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in February that the remains of Kennewick Man don't come under protection of the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, which requires tribes to show a kinship with remains that they wanted reburied before study. Tribes are weighing an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"The jury's still out on that question," Cuch said of American tribes' efforts to prove a link to North America's earliest inhabitants, who hailed from Siberia and Mongolia more than 10,000 years ago via the Bering Strait.
The arrival of Europeans and the Mormon settlement of Utah erased an oral history that kept tally of Indian antiquity, he said.
"A lot of the wisdom keepers were killed off and that knowledge was not transferred from one generation to another. Collective knowledge would indicate there's a relationship, but we don't have the cultural connection through oral history. On the other hand, they can't prove there isn't a connection, either," he said.
The Fremont refers more to a period of human history, peaking about 1,000 years ago, than a particular people, said David B. Madsen, Utah's former state archaeologist who now is a research fellow at The University of Texas at Austin.
According to his research, the Fremont were a loose collection of highly adaptable hunter-gatherers and farmers who may have spoken different dialects or languages. By 2,000 years ago, they were growing corn on both sides of Utah's Wasatch Plateau, but remained nomadic nearly year-round.Comment on this story
The Fremont stood out for a unique basketry style, moccasins using a heel fashioned from animal claws and multicolored pictographs depicting trapezoidal figures with punk rock-style hairstyles.
Cuch said he supports research at Range Creek, which is showing ancient Indians may have had a good life. Indians before their conquest had land, hunting grounds and good croplands, but lost it all and "were pretty much impoverished and begging" by the time textbooks pick up their history, he said.
"I do support scientific study that leads to better understanding of humanity, but you have to do it in a diplomatic way," said Cuch, who plans to visit Range Creek in August.