National Park Service officials say an appeal is preventing, at least for now, the proposed release of ancient Indian shields found in Utah to Navajo tribal officials in Arizona.

"My understanding is that an appeal was filed by the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe," said Paula Molloy, spokeswoman for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C.

The appeal by the Ute group, based in Towaoc, Colo., triggered a stay in the Park Service's plan to turn over ancient shields to the Navajos.

At issue are three decorated buffalo hide shields discovered by Ephraim P. Pectol in a cave near Capitol Reef National Park in 1926. Because they were found on federal land, in 1953 they were acquired by the nearby park.

Carbon dating indicated the shields were made between 1420 and 1640, probably near the end of that range. They are the oldest leather shields known in the United States. For years, they were displayed in the Capitol Reef visitor center.

To all appearances weapons, they were not considered as burial offerings, sacred or ceremonial items under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), when the act was passed in 1990. The act requires that Indian grave or ceremonial items in the federal government's control should be turned over to tribes requesting them, when an affiliation can be shown with the tribe.

About four years ago, a Pueblo tribal expert visiting the park noticed the shields and said he thought they might be ceremonial items. That triggered a review under the repatriation act and the Park Service issued notices to Indian tribes that might have a claim.

The Pueblo tribe did not file a claim, but the Navajos and several other tribes did. Also filing were Utes from Fort Duchesne, Uintah County; Kaibab Paiutes from Fredonia, Ariz.; and Utes from Colorado.

In July, Al Hendricks, superintendent of Capitol Reef National Park, ruled the Navajo Tribe should get the shields. The tribe's land is located in southern Utah, eastern New Mexico and northern Arizona, with headquarters in Window Rock, Ariz.

By then, the shields had been moved from Capitol Reef to a Park Service repository in Tucson, Ariz.

Although the Navajo land is far from Capitol Reef and the shields were made centuries ago, park archaeologist Lee Kruetzer said the decision was based largely on oral tradition.

Kruetzer cited statements by a Navajo medicine man — described as either 83 or 93 years old — who said his grandfather hid the shields during a time of warfare. He had cited oral tradition describing them, she said.

"We know Navajos were here" in the 19th century, Kruetzer said. The shields could have been old when they were hidden.

"There is more reason to believe the shields were constructed by the Utes," wrote Gene Covington, a grandson of the shields' discoverer who now lives in Hawaii. He said the Park Service admits that Ute people lived in the area around the time the shields may have been made.

"It seems to me that Ms. Kruetzer's dismissal of the Pectol Shields belonging to the Ute people is mostly due to their lack of introducing data identifying the shields as ceremonial objects," Covington contended.

"By the same token, it appears that she has come to her conclusion that they belong to the Navajo based solely on the fact that she has been told they are ceremonial objects."

He believes the determination that they are ceremonial objects may be inappropriate and premature. They should not be considered ceremonial at all, but weapons, he argues.

The Park Service ignored "evidence that has been presented explaining the manner in which the Navajo manufactured shields," he said. Those techniques are "completely inconsistent with the way in which the Pectol shields are constructed."

Meanwhile, Molloy said, the Ute Mountain Tribe's counterclaim must be weighed before the Park Service decides what will happen to the shields. Capitol Reef may negotiate with the claimants in an attempt to resolve the dispute, she said.

Descendants of the Pectols argue that these priceless possessions, in the hands of the federal government, should be displayed in Utah near their discovery place.

Hendricks said he was considering arguments raised by the Pectol defendants, as well as the Utes' counterclaim. He will respond to an appeal and explain in his response how to appeal to the next level. Generally, he said, that would be to the National Park Service regional director.

Hendricks said any affected party may request a review of an object's identity or cultural affiliation. The law allows this procedure to be initiated by affected parties, regardless of whether they are Indians.

However, NAGPRA does not recognize the Pectol descendants' right — or the right of any other non-Indian — to file a formal claim for the shields in the NAGPRA process, according to Molloy.

"In order for someone to make a claim . . . they would need to meet the qualification for NAGPRA under the law," Molloy said. "They would need to be a federally recognized Native American tribe, Alaskan Native village or corporation, or Native Hawaiian organization."

Hendricks said the difference "seems to me to be about who can file the appeals, and the language dealing with appeals is different than the language dealing with claims."