Havre Daily News
Cultural leaders at Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation may one day have to conduct a traditional Chippewa burial for a person who died about 150 years ago.
In the 19th century, the U.S. Army Medical Museum collected Native American skulls, later turning them over to the Smithsonian Institution. In accordance with a 1989 federal law, those remains and other artifacts are being returned to direct descendants or descendant tribes, which may include Rocky Boy.
Five skulls believed to have belonged to Pembina Chippewa Indians were sent to the Army Medical Museum in the late 19th century, said Eric Hollinger, a National Museum of Natural History repatriation officer. The skulls were exhumed in 1874 and belonged to people killed in an 1858 battle between the Chippewa and Sioux tribes.
The Pembina were a band of Chippewa living in Minnesota in the mid-19th century whose descendants are among modern-day tribes.
“I think (the tribes) are trying to gain something that's been taken away,” Rocky Boy cultural commission member Lloyd Top Sky said of the effort to repatriate remains. “It's good all over the country that (tribes) regain sacred objects, funerary objects and remains.”
The National Museum of Natural History in 2003 contacted four Indian nations with Pembina Chippewa ancestry to involve them in determining whether any of the skulls should be placed at one of the four reservations.
Hollinger said he's been in touch with the cultural commission at Rocky Boy through tribal preservation officer Alvin Windy Boy Sr., and with Windy Boy's counterparts at three other reservations. Hollinger is seeking help in researching the identity of the remains and looking for possible descendants.
Direct descendants may be found for one, several, or all of the skulls, Hollinger said. If that happens, the descendants' wishes take precedence over federally recognized tribes. The other reservations involved are the Turtle Mountain and Red Lake reservations in North Dakota and White Earth Reservation in Minnesota.
If the remains are repatriated with any of the tribes or family members, it will be the first time the Smithsonian has returned the remains of a Chippewa, Hollinger said.
Three of the five skulls were cataloged with either the deceased person's name or his or her relationship to a specific person, he said. One, for example, was described as the daughter of Yellow Hawk. Part of Hollinger's work with the tribes includes confirming the identities, and then looking for direct descendants.
The remaining two skulls were collected at the same time and place, but were not identified, he said. One of the two may in fact be Sioux. Hollinger said both possibilities are still being considered.
“There might have been some confusion when the remains came to the Army Medical Museum,” he said.
The repatriation process is just beginning for these five skulls, Hollinger said. If no direct descendants can be found or all four tribes have equal claims, they will be repatriated to the tribes jointly and it will be up to them to determine the fate of the remains.
The tribes will also have the option of publicizing the identities, once they are confirmed, in order to find descendants.
Top Sky anticipates a few logistical challenges if any remains are repatriated at Rocky Boy. Hollinger said the Smithsonian pays travel and shipping costs, but does not pay costs for any burial ceremonies.
Top Sky said there would need to be a wake and funeral feast, which could be costly. Top Sky has both Chippewa and Cree ancestry and said he doesn't know of anybody at Rocky Boy who is familiar with Chippewa burial practices. If it were to conduct a Chippewa burial, the tribe might need to bring somebody in who is familiar with Chippewa ceremonies.
Generally, Chippewa buried their dead with the head to the west and feet to the east. Chippewa were buried under a small structure, like a miniature house, Top Sky said.