Washakie, BOX ELDER COUNTY — Near the northern Utah border lies an obscure, but sacred spot of ground where hundreds of Native American remains are buried.
Four additional souls were welcomed to the privately owned cemetery Saturday, marking "a day of joy" for the surviving and thriving Northwestern Shoshone Nation, said Darren Parry, the tribe's vice chairman.
Though the ceremony was conducted "old-school," consisting of ancient Native American customs, Parry said the entire tribe subscribes to beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He has credited their faith and the tribal members' 1873 LDS conversion as a major reason they're still around today, having avoided placement on government reservations and other persecution through the years due to their registry with the church.
Prayer was offered Saturday "for these who walked upon the earth before us," said Shoshone elder Larry Neaman, who bears top honors among the tribe's approximately 536 members living in Box Elder, Weber and Davis counties, as well as portions of Nevada, Idaho and Wyoming.
At 63, Neaman said being called an "elder" makes him feel "really old," but he's proud to guide his people and still lives in Washakie, where he grew up harvesting and hunting the land.
With time, Neaman said "all Indian people will journey into the Creator's world," known by Latter-day Saints as the presence of a Heavenly Father.
"I will meet you again, somewhere on the other side. But I am not dead, my body is asleep," he chanted in ancient Shoshone dialect while presiding over the burial site. Fewer than 10 Shoshone members can recall the language.
The bones were carefully wrapped in rabbit skin bags and laid in the ground facing East on a grave site-dotted plain covered in sagebrush and dry grass. The 6-foot deep trench contains all four remains and was sprinkled with dried tobacco prior to their placement, a Native American custom symbolizing respect.
"It is to honor the old Indian custom and train of thought of returning them to their resting grounds," Parry said.
Two of the remains buried Saturday had recently been in the possession of the Smithsonian Institution, another had been property of the federal government and the fourth set was found years ago in the Utah town of Warren, in Weber County. Parry believes the remains were studied and documented in order to better identify other generations of Shoshone Indians and their posterity.
The bones had been kept intact and were carefully cared for while in government possession. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, in conjunction with other legislation, requires the return of cultural artifacts, including human remains, to their rightful tribes. Parry said it has taken years to fulfil the promise, but individuals are slowly coming home.
The newest grave sites at the Washakie Cemetery will remain unmarked, to prohibit digging at the spot. Native American skulls used to fetch a price, said Tribal historian Patty Timbimboo-Madsen.
Timbimboo-Madsen, one of about 50 full-blooded Northwestern Shoshone Native Americans living in Utah, said she can trace her tribal lines to the late 1700s, but the population of Native Americans is believed to have been living in the southwestern United States for decades, if not centuries before that.
Shoshone people, she said, gather each year to "share old stories and encounter new relatives."
"Remembrance of those who have passed on allows us to tell their stories and hold onto some of their ideals because they were good ideals," Timbimboo-Madsen said. "They held a real importance of family everyone had their place in their family."
Repatriating the remains, she said, helps bring her people back together, which is "something we didn't even imagine could ever happen." The tribe had been descimated by U.S. troops at the Bear River Massacre in Preston, Idaho, in January 1863.
More than 300 people died, marking the single greatest loss of Indian lives in American history. Two of the remains buried Saturday, both identified by researchers as teenagers, are believed to have perished in the massacre. Their remains were located near the battle site.
Timbimboo-Madsen said there's no way of knowing how many bodies lie in the small private Washakie cemetery, but each time more remains are found, the tribe gathers as many as can attend and holds a ceremony to honor not only the passing of their progenitors, but also the lives they lived and "many different journeys they took on this earth," Neaman said.
"We are all going to return to the earth as dirt one day," he said. "Our bodies are part of the earth. Our spirits, we believe, were created in some other way."
Honoring the ancient people, Neaman said, gives root to the enduring Shoshone culture, as "it helps us to understand their hardships and sacrifice a little bit better."
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: wendyleonards