Legislation is in the works to help repatriate Native American remains found on private land, a growing number of which are being housed indefinitely at repositories.
When human remains are discovered on public lands, they're analyzed to determine cultural affiliation, and Utah tribes have the opportunity to submit claims for repatriation, said Forrest Cuch, director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs. If no claims are made, the remains are interred at the state burial vault, he said.
But for those remains found on private property, no such process is in place, so they're kept at repositories at places such as the University of Utah or the state Division of History, Cuch said.
"Behind all this is an attempt to honor the dead," Cuch said. "The goal is to get those remains out of repositories and return them to the tribes or place them in the burial vault."
Sen. Darin Peterson, R-Nephi, who is working on the bill, said it would also help landowners by streamlining the process of reporting remains and remove landowners' burden of paying for the often costly process.
If someone were digging a basement in Sandy and came upon human remains, he said, it may be illegal to disturb the remains until an archaeologist is consulted. Meanwhile, building is halted.
"What we want to do is kind of hustle this up a little bit," he said, "give the state archaeologist's office at least one employee, get the remains identified and out of there."
Peterson said he'll move forward with the legislation only if both landowners and tribes are protected. While all details are not yet finalized, Peterson thinks the bill would add a vehicle and an expert in the archaeologist's office to do field checks. He estimates the bill could cost the state about $75,000 each year.
As Utah undergoes more development, more remains are exposed on private land, said Kevin Jones, the state archaeologist, whose office would likely take responsibility for the remains found on private land.
Jones said the bill will also take the cost burden off of private landowners, who are legally required to report human remains, and will also honor the deceased.
"We are running into human remains at a higher rate than ever," Jones said. "And we need to make sure that they're covered properly under the law, so we can treat them with proper respect. ... We'll do whatever needs to be done with the excavation and removal, so that the project can continue."Liz Robinson, a private archaeologist with SWCA environmental consultants, Salt Lake City, thinks it would be great if someone in the state government were dedicated to this type of project. It would have to be someone with "good relations with the tribes and landowners, a good go-to person for any of those kinds of situations."