Lincoln Journal Star: Kevin Abourezk
(NCIA Director Judi gaiashkibos delivered sage collected by Roger Welsch on the Pawnee homelands that was used in the smudging ceremony)
Charmaine Shawana plans to get up early Wednesday and drive nearly 12 hours west to bring her ancestors home.
It’s been more than a century since two of her tribe’s ancestors were taken from their graves in Michigan, and it’s time to bring them home, said the Saginaw Chippewa tribal council member.
“Our ancestors were disrupted in their sleep,” she said. “We need to put them back, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
A small delegation will visit Lincoln Wednesday and Thursday to retrieve the remains of the ancestors that have been housed for decades in the University of Nebraska State Museum.
A 1990 law requires all federal agencies and federally funded institutions to return human remains and funerary objects to tribes through a process known as repatriation, and while most federal agencies and federally funded universities today are willing to participate, it hasn’t always been that way.
A memorial stone on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s East Campus stands as testimony to a nearly three-year effort by tribal leaders to get the university to return remains to them. Many of the remains had been incinerated and spread on East Campus, and UNL leaders decided to erect a monument nearby.
Priscilla Grew, director of the NU State Museum, said she began working with a coalition of seven Michigan tribes in 2008 to return human remains and 27 funerary objects housed in the museum.
The tribes designated representatives of the Saginaw Chippewa to receive the remains and objects on their behalf.
“I’ve enjoyed working with the coalition up there,” Grew said. “Now they’ve been able to bring this to a conclusion.”
UNL has returned the remains of 1,849 individuals to tribes since 1998, she said.
The latest repatriation effort has roots in 1883, when a man named M.L. Eaton removed the remains of two Native people from graves near Midland, Mich. That same year, he took 27 funerary objects from different Native graves. The State Museum took possession of the remains and funerary objects in 1894.
According to a Feb. 17, 1894, obituary in the Fairbury Gazette, Martin L. Eaton was a Fairbury doctor and former mayor who had served as the Jefferson County coroner and an adjutant for the second regiment of the Nebraska National Guard. He died Feb. 12, 1894, of pneumonia at the age of 36.
Shawana said it was common practice for non-Native researchers to exhume the bodies and funerary objects at the time, often to study physical attributes including cranial capacity and femur length.
The late 19th century was an especially difficult time for the Saginaw Chippewa people as they struggled to adapt to the loss of hunting land and the decimation of their culture and language due to forced assimilation by the federal government, she said.
“We survived that,” she said. “Where we are today is really quite remarkable.”
The tribe has prospered partly due to a successful gaming enterprise and largely due to the determined efforts of tribal members to preserve their language and culture, Shawana said.
Saginaw Chippewa tribal members plan to host a brief ceremony at the State Museum Thursday morning, she said.
Once home, they plan to host a feast for their ancestors and then bury their remains in a cemetery the tribe has designated specifically for repatriated ancestors, she said.
“It’s an honor to work with our relatives, bring them home, feast them, put them back in the ground where they belong,” Shawana said. “Hopefully, they’ll never be disturbed again.”