Norton treads uncharted waters over remains
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Secretary of Interior Gale Norton might be forced into deciding who owns a set of 10,000-year-old human remains an independent review panel said should go to a Nevada tribe.

Commonly referred to as Spirit Cave Man, the bones are at the center of a dispute between the Bureau of Land Management, an agency Norton oversees, and the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe. The tribe asked for the remains but the Clinton administration in August 2000 said they weren't "culturally affiliated" to any specific group.

The preliminary determination was appealed and last fall, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Review Committee recommended the man and objects found with him be given to the tribe. A Federal Register notice published yesterday marked the panel's 6-1 findings, which charged that BLM officials in Nevada handled the case improperly.

"The review committee does not believe that the Nevada State Office has given fair and objective consideration and assessment of all the available information and evidence in this case," wrote committee chair Armand Minthorn in the March 13 notice.

Just what happens next, however, is a "gray area," admit department officials. "The recommendation is not binding in any way," said Paula Molloy, who works in the National Park Service office that oversees repatriation issues.

"The [review] committee is not in a position to compel the agency to take action," she added.

But Minthorn, who handles cultural resources issues for the Confederated Umatilla Tribes of Oregon, said there was resistance from the government nonetheless. "There were some National Park Service staff that felt obligated to try and reflect one committee member's opinion," he said in an interview, referring to the one dissenting voice.

"The committee didn't approve [the dissent] to be in the finding or in the Federal Register," he said.

Molloy said she wasn't "in a position to comment" about the schism. But she and other NPS officials noted that only once has the committee made a recommendation contrary to an agency's determination.

The uneasiness displayed points to the uncharted territory over the return of human remains and other artifacts made possible under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Were it not for the law, the tribe would not have been able to lay claim to Spirit Cave Man, who was put on display in a Nevada museum after being discovered on BLM land 60 years ago.

In another high-profile case, former Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt said a set of 9,000-year-old remains known as Kennewick Man should go to five tribes in the Pacific Northwest. A group of scientists sued and the dispute is in federal court.

Get the Spirit Cave Man notice:

Related Documents:
Determinaton of Spirit Cave Man | Spirit Cave Man: Biological Aspects

Relevant Links:
Spirit Cave Man, The Reno Gazette-Journal -
Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Review Committee -

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Yakama Nation files Kennewick Man suit (6/01)
Kennewick testing to begin (4/24)