Workshop discusses removal of human remains on Native burial sites in Nevada
December 20, 2018
CARSON CITY, Nev. — Nevada's Native community is hoping its traditions and values aren't overlooked in favor of a more scientific process with the state law that governs repatriation of objects and human remains on American Indian burial sites.
The Nevada State Museum held a public workshop Dec. 13 that brought together roughly 35 tribal members, museum officials, legislative representatives and community members, with several also videoconferencing from Las Vegas.
The hearing was required to solicit comments on proposed new regulations pertaining to Chapter 381 of the Nevada Administrative Code. The museum was made responsible for implementing those regulations after Sens. Julia Ratti, Nicole Cannizzaro, Aaron Ford and Pete Goicoechea introduced Senate Bill 244 in the 2017 legislative session.
According to the bill, land owners in Nevada who seek to excavate any known Native American burial site on their property must follow similar laws the federal government enforces in handling cultural resources for certain projects.
Nevada State Museum Director Myron Freedman, Curator of Anthropology Gene Hatori and staff helped draft the regulations proposed at the Dec. 13 workshop, and several participants adamantly expressed concerns about particular language on each of the 22 provisions.
Provision 3, in particular, was of interest. Language states if an archaeologist or private landowner were to find human remains or evidence of graves or burials, they must obtain a permit for excavating on that land, per Nevada law.
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The main questions arose about the process and ethical implications of discovering remains on known burial sites, versus the constitutional rights of private property owners.
"If you recall, a couple of weeks ago, the city of Reno denied two housing projects — clearly private land interests, private property … but governments do have the ability to make decisions that are in the best interest of its citizens," said Marla McDade Williams, who was representing the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony at the hearing. "And in this situation, we believe it's best (for) the state of the Nevada not to go around telling people, 'Well, you're exempt from that; go ahead and get out there before we get our remains there.'"
Others at the workshop sought to define, narrow or, in some cases, exclude other language in the draft's provisions, such as "abandoned property" for legal or cultural purposes that would impact tribes' cultural or funerary traditions.
"I would be opposed to narrowing that definition," said McDade Williams, who works as Northern Nevada director of the company 360 Strategies. "We're going forward and calling an issue of title without clearly understanding it. I'd be very concerned. It's understanding the end game and how to enable a tribe to come forward and make a claim."
Participants also spoke of a greater desire to be more involved in communications concerning tribal issues as a whole.
"I think we have to clarify each time we have a meeting, Myron, that because new people come in that haven't been involved in this process for two or three years or weren't even part of this process … and we have to update this and that's an important thing," said Michon Eben, of the RSIC's Tribal Historic Preservation Office Cultural Resources Program. "That's why we changed this law because it was so outdated — it was science-based, it was nontraditional. There were no values, beliefs and traditions, and now you have us sitting here, and we want to continue to make sure these two laws are important to us.
"They're involving our ancestral remains and cultural remains that have been looted, excavated — and it's science-based."
Aside from the RSIC, input was collected from members representing the Bridgeport Indian Reservation, Washoe Tribe, Stewart Indian School, Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, Walker River Paiute Tribe, Battle Mountain Colony and Duckwater Shoshone Tribe, along with agencies including McGinness and Associates, Friends of the Nevada State Museum and more.
Freedman said these regulations originally would have been finished in early 2019, but the state's Legislative Counsel Bureau didn't codify the law until after July this year, pushing the museum's process back. Staff now expects to hold at least one extra public meeting, based on what was provided Dec. 13, before determining final steps.
"It's always good to get feedback on what we do," Hatori said after the session. "The good part is that we had a greater attendance than we expected, so we're really hopeful that the tribes will help us get these regulations in place."
Copies of the proposal are available by contacting Anna Camp at the Nevada State Museum, 600 N. Carson St., Carson City, 89701; by calling 775-687-4810, ext. 261; or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. O