Rituals, traditions adjust to return of remains
AMHERST — The repatriation of American Indian remains has led many tribes to re-evaluate rituals and create new ones for the internment of their returned ancestors, said Robert Paynter, a University of Massachusetts Amherst anthropology professor working on repatriation.
“This is difficult for native communities,” he said. “They don’t have in their traditions rituals or an understanding philosophy, beliefs about what to do with people who have been stolen out of their graves, held for a long period of time and then given back to them.”
In general, what happens to American Indian remains once they’ve been returned to tribes isn’t clear because burial rituals tend to be customs most tribes do not discuss with people outside their culture.
“It’s not meant for general consumption,” said John Brown, the Narragansett Indian Tribe historic preservation officer. “It’s very personal. While there is a public component to this process, the actual issues themselves are very much internal to the tribes.”
He agreed to be interviewed by the Gazette, but noted that he was not speaking on behalf of any tribe, and only speaking in general about repatriation.
He has worked on repatriation projects, including at least one with UMass.
“I am very happy for those tribes,” Brown said when informed of the repatriation.
Donna “Rae” Gould, a member of Nipmuc Nation, said each tribe has its own way of reburying its dead, but she declined to discuss how her tribe has interred repatriated ancestors.
There are some tribes, like the Navajo, who aren’t interested in reburial, said Kevin McBride, director of research at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center in Connecticut.
“The Navajo would never dream of repatriating remains. It can’t be done ... their world view is once you disturb someone, that never goes away. You can’t get that individual back,” McBride said. “But most people want their people back for a number of reasons, religious and political.”
The majority of tribes, Gould estimates, are happy to finally have legal standing to get their ancestors back, though for some it has taken too long.
“The lobbying for this has been going on from the 1600s, with people saying, stop digging up our graves. It took over 400 years to make it a law,” she said. “We’re in the 21st century now and people have a right to access their heritage.”