BATTLE CREEK, Mich. — In the basement and back rooms of Kingman Museum, the remains of people from long ago wait to return home.
That's the goal of the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which became law in 1990. Since then, the museum has been working to return the remains of Native American people and artifacts back to the tribes from which they originated.
It can be a daunting task, correctly identifying and returning such materials for any institution; notices of the remains have to be sent to the relevant tribes and the National Park Service's NAGPRA Program, which then publishes notices for Native American tribes to review to see if there are remains to be repatriated to them.
Kingman is no exception and has been working on becoming fully compliant with NAGPRA while dealing with, they say, understaffing and limited space. That's why the museum has announced an opening for an intern to help with the task of returning a dozen or so items and remains.
"Because of snail mail it takes a little while," Collections Manager Beth Yahne said. "Between that and in 2000, with the museum kind closing down for a couple of years, we tried to pick it back up since the museum's been open. The Internet has made it a little easier."
Western Michigan University Professor of Archaeology Michael Nassaney said the remains would be given to museums with an eye toward scientific study.
"The idea was that these would have some research potential, that they would be studied and so forth, and in some instances they were," he said. "In other instances, they just lay in boxes and bags on museum shelves."
One of the items Kingman would like to return is a mummified human head originating from the Alaskan Tlingit tribe.
Yahne said it was sent to Dr. John Harvey Kellogg from a missionary named Esther Gibson about 100 years ago. The inventor of Corn Flakes and proprietor of the Battle Creek Sanitarium gave it to the museum.
Being carefully watched over in the Kingman basement, the head is in a box and covered with a protective wrap.
Nearby, in another container, sits a buckskin sack found with the head.
According to the missionary's letter to Kellogg, the box also contained the long-lost man's ashes, but she could not send them.
Taking the lid off the box recently, Yahne revealed the face of someone undoubtedly with a story to tell. The top of his head was full with long hair. His face was thin, even when accounting for the decay of time.
Above his top lip, a thin layer of facial hair still clung.
Whatever story this man had that led to his remains being found in a box in an Alaskan cave by two Native American boys is long gone. A few marks on his face show where Yahne thinks the two boys struck him with an axe while opening the box before they knew what was inside.
"We think it's a shaman or a warrior; someone that's pretty important," she said.
Other human remains were returned to places such as Muskegon and Mesa Verde, Colo., over the years the museum has been working on compliance.
There are other objects that need to be returned that are still important, if not as dramatic. For example, a rattle-like device made out of a tortoise shell and head sits in a storage room near Kingman's large collection of artifacts.
It, too, needs to find its way back home.
That's because the museum receives federal funds, and any institution that does is required to conform to NAGPRA. Nor is the museum allowed to display such artifacts and remains, or allow photography of them, out of deference to the tribes.
Nassaney said NAGPRA has resulted in attitudes changing over time regarding the final placement of Native American remains.
"In the past, archaeologists didn't have much to say to native people," Nassaney said. "Understandably, native people didn't want to talk to archaeologists because they were seen as grave robbers. Now those relationships are beginning to change, partly as a result of NAGPRA."
After an archaeological dig uncovers remains, Nassaney said the first step is to contact local police, a medical examiner or a state official, such as the Michigan Office of the State Archaeologist. Once it is determined that the remains are not from a person who has been missing, then the ethnicity must be determined through genetic work.
If they are from a native population, the search for the relevant tribe is made and it will determine what is to be done with the remains. Sometimes any handling of the remains is not permitted, resulting in them being reburied.
Still, some artifacts can be displayed, and Kingman is planning an exhibit featuring local Native American pieces of history.
Information from: Battle Creek Enquirer, http://www.battlecreekenquirer.com
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