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KLAWOCK and CRAIG - The U.S. Forest Service has conveyed custody of 10,300-year-old human remains to Tlingit tribes in Klawock and Craig, marking the first time a federal agency has transferred remains of such antiquity to a Native American tribe.
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The transfer came after the Klawock Cooperative Association, the Craig Community Association and Sealaska Corp. in February petitioned the agency for custody. The tribes made the request at the end of a collaborative project to study the remains, which were discovered by a paleontologist in 1996 in a cave on Prince of Wales Island.
"We believe this person is our ancestor, and we are excited to welcome him home," said Millie Stevens, president of the Craig Community Association.
"The tribes will meet to decide the most appropriate way to put him to rest," said Webster Demmert, president of the Klawock Cooperative Association.
The discovery of the remains 11 years ago triggered an immediate consultation between the government and local tribes, as required by the federal Native American Graves and Repatriation Act. Unlike the contentious case of the Kennewick Man, in which Lower 48 tribes and scientists were at odds, the Southeast Alaska tribes ultimately endorsed study of the remains after determining they were not retrieved from a burial site but scattered in the cave possibly by scavengers.
One reason the tribes supported study of the remains was they believed it would scientifically prove what their oral histories have stated for millennia - that Native people have lived in this area since time immemorial and that they traveled here in canoes. Additionally, the Tlingit belief of Haa Shagóon unites present-day Tlingit with their ancestors and with future generations. Yarrow Vaara, a Native from Klawock who served as a Sealaska intern at the cave and who is now the language director at Sealaska Heritage Institute, interpreted the discovery of her ancestor's remains as her ancestor offering Vaara knowledge of her past.
"I've participated in various roles of this project from the beginning and I'm honored to have helped present his story to the world and preserve knowledge for future generations," Vaara said. "Now that the study is over though, I'm grateful our ancestor's remains will be cared for with cultural dignity."
It was considered one of the more important archaeological sites found in North America in recent years because the ancient bones are the oldest human remains ever discovered in Alaska and Canada.
Scientists found through DNA analysis and other testing that the ancient person was a male in his early 20s of Native American ancestry who subsisted primarily on seafood. Stone tools made of nonlocal materials and found in the cave suggest the early inhabitants had access to watercraft and navigated the coastal region. The evidence collectively bolstered an emerging scientific theory that people first migrated to the Americas from Asia along the northwest coast in watercraft, perhaps during the last ice age. Tlingit oral histories also record coastal migrations into Southeast Alaska, according to anthropologist Rosita Worl, who also serves as president of Sealaska Heritage Institute. Until recently, many scientists dismissed the idea, believing the coastal area was locked in ice and incapable of sustaining life at that time.
The find ultimately led to a multiyear collaboration among Native groups, scientists and the government that included a Native internship program at the cave sponsored by Sealaska Corp., the National Science Foundation, the Denver Museum of Science and Nature and the University of Colorado. The Sealaska Heritage Institute, Tongass National Forest, Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and the National Park Service also produced a 28-minute film about the collaboration titled "Kuwóot yas.éin" ("His Spirit is Looking Out From the Cave"), available through Sealaska Heritage Institute, a regional, Native nonprofit.
The Forest Service transferred the remains to the tribes after determining they belonged to an individual of Native American ancestry and were removed from lands recognized as the aboriginal land of the Tlingit people. The remains, which include a mandible, teeth, vertebrae, some ribs and a pelvic bone, are being held in a secure place by the Forest Service until the tribes determine the most appropriate way to put them to rest.
For more information, contact Kathy Dye, of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, at (907) 463-4844.