Bones raise dispute between museum, Alaska Natives

Posted: Monday, January 30, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Inupiats in Barrow want the Smithsonian Institution to return dozens of human skeletal remains unearthed in northern Alaska.

The American Museum of Natural History refuses to give up the remains of 85 individuals, saying they came from a group of Arctic people who predated the ancestors of the modern-day Inupiat.

The Washington D.C.-based institution believes those remains, excavated in the early 20th century, belong to the ancient Birnirk culture, whose descendants apparently left Alaska to resettle in Greenland and Canada around 1,000 A.D.

The Smithsonian said the remains, excavated from four sites, are more likely related to the Inuit people of Greenland or Canada.

After the Birnirk vanished from northern Alaska, no one lived on the North Slope for about 400 years until new people, the Thule culture that became today's modern Inupiat, moved in from the south, said Eric Hollinger, a repatriation case officer with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Hollinger said the Smithsonian based its information on studies collected from more than 20 reports done between 1916 and 1990. The museum also conducted computer-analyzed studies comparing the shape of Birnirk skulls with those from other excavated skulls that were only a few hundred years old.

The Birnirk skulls are too tall and narrow to be related to Barrow residents, Hollinger said.

But representatives with Barrow Native organizations believe the remains are their ancestors and should be laid to rest.

"I don't buy (the museum's) argument. Who else could they be culturally affiliated with?" said Jana Harcharek, former head of the Arctic Slope Regional Corp.'s cultural commission.

Owen Mason, a geological archaeologist and research associate for the University of Colorado who specializes in the Birnirk culture, said the Smithsonian's argument is valid in some ways but has flaws.

For one thing, the Smithsonian bases most of its information on research done more than 80 years ago using questionable and outdated methods. And while the museum did conduct new skull measurements, it didn't do any new radiocarbon tests. Radiocarbon dating can often be skewed by several hundred years.

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