2012-07-28 / Top News

Northern Michigan Tribes Gather To Celebrate Return of Remains

By Matt Mikus

A small gathering of 25 people stood under a steady rainfall in a section of Ste. Anne’s Cemetery Wednesday, July 25. In silence, they reflected on the ancestral remains being returned to their home soil after more than 50 years. Unearthed by archeologists on Bois Blanc Island in 1961, the bones and artifacts had been sent to a museum on the University of Michigan campus, where they have been kept until now.

The Indian remains were interred this week in the new Native American burial mound at the cemetery, constructed earlier this year in the form of a turtle, and the special ceremony was attended by tribal leaders and members of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, and Bay Mills Indian Community.

“There was at time when it was acceptable to desecrate Native American grave sites in the name of science and curiosity, to decipher and look at how our people lived,” said Cecil Pavlat, repatriation specialist for the Sault Tribe.

More recently, he noted, archeologist have been willing to work with tribes to learn about the oral history of tribes, which he said tribes are willing to share. He doesn’t point blame at the science community for past trespasses against Indian culture; it’s better, he said, to move forward and work together.

“Our history is an oral history,” he said. “All they have to do is ask and we’re willing to share.”

The Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 defines the rights Native American lineal descendants and tribes have for the treatment of human remains and cultural artifacts found at Indian burial grounds. Tribes or descendants can decide whether museums can keep the remains or must give them back for reburial. The act now also protects burial sites of indigenous people.

The identity of remains found at Bois Blanc was originally in question, so claiming them was a problem, but tribes in northern Michigan decided that tribal affiliation was less important than repatriation.

In May of 2010, the federal government decoded that remains that could not be associated with a specific tribe could be repatriated, and agencies were directed to work with tribes and descendants in the area where the remains were found. In April 2011, the University of Michigan began developing a policy for returning remains it had in its archives, and this resulted in the repatriation of remains found at Bois Blanc Island.

Marge Bekins of St. Ignace, of the Mackinac Bands, attended the Mackinac Island ceremony Wednesday. She can directly link her ancestors to the site on Bois Blanc were they were unearthed. She said her great-great-grandfather was buried there, and his remains are likely among those exhumed.

“A long time ago, the property was sold with the understanding that the cemetery on the site would never be removed or destroyed,” she said. “Well, buyer after buyer goes by, and they forget that promise, and they disturbed the land where my ancestors rested.”

One of her relatives, Don Andress of Mackinac Island, said after the ceremony, “It’s about time to get them back to where they belong. It felt great to get them back here.”

Armand “Smi” Horn, head of the Mackinac Island Cemetery Board, was also present at the ceremony, and helped facilitate the event. While there are still decisions regarding the care of the recently added burial mound, Mr. Horn believes a solution for maintaining it will be found.

“I think the ceremony went beautifully,” he said.

The ceremony lasted an hour, through strong rains and thunder, and it included a peace pipe blessing, a sacred flame, and song and drums, and then the remains were placed in the mound and covered. A small community feast was held after the ceremony.

“It’s an emotional thing to be a part of,” Mr. Pavlat said. “So many people came together for this day. All we are doing is what we are responsible and obligated to do.”

Many people participated in the repatriation of the remains, he noted at the ceremony.

“There have been so many people involved in helping us bring our ancestors back home.”

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