An 11,000 Year Old Burial in Park County, Montana: Law, Ethics and Respect
By Larry A. Lahren, Ph.D
“ It is not their intrinsic value as evidence that makes these bones newsworthy; rather the spin applied in disclosing that evidence.” (Roger Downey, Riddle of the Bones: Politics, Science, Race and the Story of Kennewick Man -2000).
In May 1968, while removing fill material with a front-end loader on Mel and Helen Anzick’s property near Wilsall, Montana, equipment operator Ben Hargis saw a prehistoric stone tool fall out of the bucket. Along the edge of a prominent outcrop, where Flathead Creek and the Shields River join, Ben found the gravesite of a one to two year old male child, interred with about 115 red-ochre covered tools.
This burial is the most significant Paleoindian site in North America – representing the earliest evidence of religion in the Western Hemisphere and the oldest, most complete, assemblage of grave goods (funerary items) left by the Clovis culture that lived here at least 11,000 years ago.
From 1968 to 2001, I tried to ensure that this burial site received the archaeological, legal and ethical respect it deserved.
Recently, an international research team led by Professor Eske Willersev, Director of the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, implied in the media, that they followed, respectful, legal and ethical guidelines during the course of their genetic studies.
But did this happen?
House Bill Number 165, the Montana Repatriation (Reburial) Act states:
“…both common law and legal decisions have consistently recognized that human skeletal remains are not property abandoned when interred. Discoverers, therefore, have no right of ownership, and they cannot confer a right of ownership to another. Neither a private nor public person, other than a descendant of a culturally affiliated group, can legally claim ownership of human skeletal remains or funerary objects.”
More than a year ago, I was advised that genetic studies of the Clovis child were complete. Professor Willersev asked me to give the project my after-the-fact blessing and to be one of 42 co-authors on an article to appear in Nature magazine (February 13, 2014). Another request was to "grease the wheels" and arrange for Native contact in Montana. I declined on legal and ethical grounds and suggested the researchers follow the legal process and formally contact, the State Archaeologist, the Montana Burial Board and Montana Tribal Leaders. In fact, in the forty-six years since the site was found, no attempt has been made to follow this legally mandated process.
At a pre-publication meeting in Montana, on September 21, 2013, Professor Willersev had a problem. Studies were already complete and he had skirted the State Archaeologist, the Montana Burial Board and the Tribes. So how could he show that he had followed the legal and ethical guidelines to conduct destructive tests on the skeletal remains before publication? To partially reduce Professor Willersev’s angst, I invited Shane Doyle, Crow tribal member and adjunct professor in Native American studies at Montana State University, along with a teacher and students from Crow Agency to visit the site the next day. This would have been the first time any Native Americans had been to the site, and to me, and would have been an introductory way of introducing the site into Montana Native American education programs.
Shane had no knowledge of the genetic studies, or the legal and ethical issues. Thus, I made it clear to Professor Willersev that Shane was an independent visitor — not a representative of the Tribes, the University or any other entity.
After I explained the burial context, Professor Willersev then stated that the Clovis child shared 80 % of the same genetics (cultural affiliation) with contemporary Native Americans. When asked what he thought should be done, Shane replied, “Speaking from the heart, I think you should put him back now [repatriation].” To implement the process, Shane then agreed to be an unofficial liaison with the Montana Tribes. During a whirlwind tour to various Montana reservations, Montana Tribal leaders asked the Crow to pursue repatriation of the child's remains. The present plan is for Crow Sundance Priest, Larson Medicine Horse, to oversee the ceremony at the site in June, 2014.
But look at the duplicity, spin and misrepresentation of Shane's role which appeared in Rex Dalton’s article in the February 20, 2014, issue of Spiegel Online:
“…Shane Doyle of the Crow Nation gave permission for the DNA analysis of the 12,600 year old bones.”
For nearly 50 years, various “Clovis Carpetbaggers” have denied the burial associations, claimed various types of “ownership”, tried to buy the artifacts and used the site for institutional and individual opportunism. I see the same pattern in the current genetic study-which raises the question- do scientific ends justify illegal and unethical means? And, can Native Americans ever trust and respect the people that “study” them and their ancestors- without feeling duped?
Larry A. Lahren, North American Archaeologist, resides in Livingston, Montana and owns Anthro Research, Inc., an independent archaeology firm created in 1971. He is author of “Homeland: An archaeologist’s view of Yellowstone Country’s past.
Larry A. Lahren Ph.D
North American Archaeologist
Livingston, Mt. 59047
406 222 3168 223 3168