A total of 38 ancestral human remains arrived at the Alutiiq Museum to be held until they can be returned to the Alutiiq Tribe of Old Harbor, the museum announced on Friday.
University of Wisconsin-Madison archeologists excavated the remains as part of the university’s Aleut-Koniag project in the 1960s.
The collection was curated and stored until 2006, when it was located by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps was tasked by the regional historic preservation officer of the Alaska Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to locate Alaska archeological collections.
The remains were found in two locations on the southeastern side of the island, south of Old Harbor: Three Saints Bay and Kiavak Bay, according to 2017 Federal Register records.
At Three Saints Bay, remains of 23 individuals were excavated, including 17 adults — two possible males, two possible females and the rest of an undetermined sex — five adolescents and one infant, according to the Federal Register.
Archeologists also found 23 associated funerary objects, including a carved bone figurine, an amber bead, a bone buckle and faunal remains.
At the Old Kiavak and Young Kiavak archeological sites at the mouth of Kiavak Bay, 15 individuals were excavated, including possibly three females, two males and 10 individuals of indeterminate sex.
Additionally, 31 associated funerary objects were excavated, including bone piercings, ulu blades, spear prongs, mammal bones, stones and metal fragments, among others.
Members of the Alutiiq Tribe of Old Harbor and the Old Harbor Native Corporation said they are glad to see the items returned to their territory.
“We are saddened and disturbed that our ancestors’ burial sites were desecrated,” said Cynthia Berns, Old Harbor Native Corproation’s vice president of community and external affairs. “It is only right that our ancestors are being returned so that we can respectfully lay them back to rest in their homeland.”
As part of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act enacted in 1990, museums and federal agencies were mandated to “return certain Native American cultural items — human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony — to lineal descendants, and culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations,” according to the National Park Service website.
Repatriation is a complicated process with many moving parts, said Alutiiq Museum Collection and Facilities Manager Amanda Lancaster.
Once the cultural items are recovered, they are inventoried and stored by the Fish and Wildlife Service until the process can be completed. The process includes notifying possible tribes that could claim the items, verifying the tribes’ claims, and publishing the notice of recovered items in the Federal Register.
As of 2016, 57,847 human remains and 1.7 million funerary objects have been repatriated nationwide according to the website.
Friday’s repatriation is not the first time ancestral remains have returned to Kodiak.
“I know of at least three or four (repatriations), but I think it’s more than that,” Alutiiq Museum Curator of Archaeology Patrick Saltonstall said.
The remains of 109 Alutiiq ancestors, which originated from Chirikof Island, were returned to Kodiak in the spring of 2018.
It was the second-biggest repatriation of human remains in Kodiak-area history, after the Smithsonian Institution’s return of remains excavated in the 1930s in Larsen Bay.
The Larsen Bay repatriation “was one of the first repatriations in the country,” Saltonstall said. “It started the whole (repatriation process).”
All funerary objects will be curated at the Alutiiq Museum on behalf of the Alutiiq Tribe of Old Harbor. The Alutiiq Tribe of Old Harbor will hold a burial ceremony for the remains on Sept. 20 at Three Saints Bay, Berns wrote.
Additionally, the Alaska State Museum contacted the Alutiiq Tribe of Old Harbor about human remains that were collected from Port Hobron, which will also be returned this fall and buried.
“I am very happy we are bringing our ancestors home. It’s a wonderful feeling,” said Phyllis Clough, one of the tribe’s council members.