Two Hawks Dancing: The Importance of Public Lands to Protecting and Repatriating American Indian Cultural Items

By Kathryn Ore

It was one of those hot, windy summer days where the sky seems to meet the earth. I stood overlooking the landscape with the state archeologist, a tribal representative, and a state parks representative. Giant buttes stood solitary in the distance. Dry grasses crackled beneath our feet, patiently waiting for the flooding storms of late summer. Protected as a state park, the landscape was awe inspiring and full of a special energy. We were there for a solemn task, to rebury the remains of American Indian ancestors wrenched from their original resting places. We dug a series of holes, and carefully placed the boxes. The tribal representative sprinkled the graves with tobacco and smudged with burning sweet grass. Together, we turned slowly to face each direction. Two hawks joined overhead, dancing together.

Federal and state public lands are vital to the protection of American Indian burial sites. In the 1990s, federal and state statutes were enacted to prohibit the removal of burial goods and human remains on public lands. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) requires federal agencies and recipients of federal funding to repatriate American Indian cultural items—human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and items of cultural patrimony—to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated tribes. It also provides for the protection for American Indian burial sites, and places controls on inadvertent discovery or planned excavation of American Indian cultural items on federal and tribal lands.

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Many states further protect or provide incentives for protection of burial sites on private lands. In the majority of states, American Indian burials are protected by state legislation, which generally provides legal protections to unmarked burial sites on both public and private lands. However, not all states attach the same protections or have the means to proactively protect American Indian cultural items discovered on private lands. In states with fewer protections for private lands, public lands are extremely important to ensuring American Indian graves are left undisturbed.

My experience participating in the reburial of American Indian ancestors demonstrates the significance of public lands to the repatriation of American Indian cultural items. Many of our nation’s most treasured public lands are American Indian tribes’ most sacred places. Additionally, for cultural items without clear affiliation to a modern tribe, public lands are a somewhat neutral place for reburial. In my experience, the state park—a cultural site of extreme significance to a number of different tribes—agreed to allow American Indian ancestors to find refuge within its boundaries. Providing such a refuge helped reinvigorate and recognize the link between the ancestors who protected our lands in the past and the descendants who protect our land in the present.

As we finished our quiet blessings overlooking the vast landscape and returned to the road, I knew I had experienced something profoundly spiritual. I watched as two hawks flew into the horizon where the sky met the earth.

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