Another year or so may pass before 15 prehistoric remains will once again be laid to rest.
The 15 skeletons will remain in cardboard boxes in the state medical examiner's office pending a determination on what to do with those and all other prehistoric Indian remains recovered on public lands in Utah."A reburial committee (of state officials and tribal representatives) has been working to find solutions to the problem," said state archaeologist David Madsen. "We are working toward a resolution within six months to a year."
Finding a solution agreeable to scientists and American Indians has also been spurred by the recent discovery of dozens of Indian skeletons along the shore of the Great Salt Lake. Dozens more are housed in museums, research laboratories and various state offices.
"There is a growing concern among American Indians that remains housed in museums and various offices should be reinterred with proper ceremony and respect. We are in the process of drafting legislation as to what constitutes appropriate disposal of those remains," Madsen said.
Madsen has been working with various Utah Indian tribes about formulating a statewide reburial policy, which will also include guidelines for determining which tribe has legitimate claims to which remains.
While various Utah Indian tribes claim descent from prehistoric inhabitants, archaeological evidence does not support those claims, Madsen notes. No one is certain who the descendants of the Fremont Indians are, and the descendants of the Anasazi are believed to be the Pueblo Indians of Arizona and New Mexico - not the Utes or Navajos who currently live in southeastern Utah.
"That certainly presents problems as to who has has legitimate claims to the remains," Madsen said.
The Northwest Shoshoni laid claim to the 15 skeletons in the medical examiner's office days before they were scheduled to be reburied in southeastern Utah. The remains were originally turned over to the medical examiner after their chance discovery in different places and at different times.
Grant Bagley of the Utah attorney general's office had approached several Indian tribes about reburying the bones, but no one was interested. He then approached the Native American Peoples Historical Foundation in Blanding, which agreed to rebury the bones. But that request landed the non-political foundation in political hot water when the Northwest Shoshoni protested that American Indian remains from northern Utah, presumably Fremont Indians, should not be reburied on foundation property in southeastern Utah where the Anasazi lived prehistorically.
"We don't want the controversy," said Stan Bronson, executive director of the foundation. "We want it clear we did not request the remains; we were approached about reburying them."
Bronson added the foundation was not established for reburial of American Indian remains. Rather, it was established as a central repository for American Indian records, including government documents, written histories, books, buffalo hides, teepees with writing on them and photographs of rock art.
But Indian members of the foundation board of directors have strong feelings about the reburial issue.
"Those people have been in boxes for so long that out of respect we ought to bury them, not wait another six months or a year or whatever," Bronson said.
"All we will do is encourage reburial and offer a place if anyone wants. It doesn't matter to us whether we actually do that. If they request us to do it, we will be happy to. But we will not lobby for it."
But Madsen adds that it is premature to begin reburying American Indian remains before a definitive state policy is developed. "There's certainly no need to rush out and do it right now," he said.