Sacred bone whistle headed back to Nez Perce tribe

By John Miller
Boise, Idaho (AP) June 2010

It was one of those fortuitous little moments that happen every now and again in archaeological collections: Somebody opens a dusty old box, not knowing what’s inside.

What University of Idaho anthropologist Leah Evans-Janke and staff at the school’s Alfred W. Bowers Laboratory of Anthropology found – a sacred bone whistle, among other items possibly dating to the 1700s – are now on the verge of being returned to the Nez Perce tribe after spending decades in a forgotten, anonymous crate in a warehouse.

While Evans-Janke, the lab’s collections manager in Moscow, Idaho, says the discovery isn’t earthshaking, “the greatest feeling in the world is meeting with the tribe, and handing the items back over to them, and knowing things are coming back to where they should be – kind of tipping the balance in the universe to where things should be.”

The 20-year-old federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires human remains, funerary and sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony be returned to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated American Indian tribes.

That can take years; collections are so vast, even their curators sometimes don’t know what they have.

In 2006, the remains of about 150 American Indians including Nez Perce members, as well as their possessions, were returned by the University of Idaho and Washington State University in nearby Pullman and reburied at a secret location, to thwart modern-day grave robbers.

In this latest find, Evans-Janke said lab workers were about 60 percent finished with cataloguing collections from Idaho’s 10 northern counties in 2009 when they came across the bone whistle, along with a square wood stick, a brass or copper button, a tusk-like shell and a rounded cork.

“Every now and again, you still find one of those boxes that hasn’t been paid much attention to,” she said. “We get surprised, just like anybody else.”

Records show the objects were dug up 47 years ago on property owned by a sheep rancher named Harry Hagen. It was in the midst of road construction, but the site had been ransacked, according to an Idaho State Archaeological Society account.

“Although the site did not yield human remains at the time of the excavation, it was noted that the site had been ‘almost completely potted by amateurs,”’ the National Park Service wrote in a Federal Register notice published June 1.

The federal agency now manages the site where the objects were found. It’s near where Nez Perce members, led by Chief Joseph, fought U.S. Cavalry forces in 1877 during in the Battle of White Bird Canyon on their unsuccessful flight toward Canada.

UI officials, in consultation with the Nez Perce, have determined the whistle – likely used during ceremonies, then buried with its owner – and other objects can be “reasonably traced” to the tribe’s ancestors who lived and traveled near the Snake, Clearwater and Salmon rivers in Idaho, Washington and Oregon for thousands of years.

The National Park Service has given notice of the find to the region’s other tribes. If nobody steps forward before July 1 to make a claim, the objects are due to be repatriated to the Nez Perce.

Nakia Williamson, the Nez Perce ethnographer, said sacred or funerary objects are usually re-interred near the places where they were found, out of respect for the intentions of those people who originally buried them.

Such ceremonies, conducted under the guidance of tribal elders, also seek to make sure the items remain safe from people who might be tempted to disturb them again.

“As low a profile as can be is usually our best bet,” Williamson said. “That is always a concern, people who either intentionally or unintentionally disturb sacred sites.”

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