Bringing The Dead Back Home


In this remote native village on the Yukon River, each death sets off a series of elaborate rituals involving dance and copious quantities of food. People here believe that without song and ceremony no member of the tribe can enter the afterlife.

So when the elders here learned that the bodies of two village children had turned up in a Fairbanks museum--deposited there by anthropologists in the 1940s--everyone agreed there was only one thing to do. They had to bring the dead back home.

Residents in Nulato are hoping to rebury the remains in the village cemetery this week, adorning their grave with a simple plaque that reads: "Our children. Taken in 1948. Returned June 2001."

Such "repatriations" of native artifacts and remains have become common in rural Alaska in recent years, the product of a 1990 federal law that gives tribes the right to reclaim the bodies of their ancestors from universities and other institutions.

"Fifty-three years they've been at the museum, and we just found out about it," said Larry Esmailka, a member of the village council. No one knows who the children were or when they died. "A lot of our elders were just kids" when the bodies were taken, Esmailka said.

By Midnight Sun, the Burial Season

This month, as a midnight sun thaws the icy ground and Alaska's abbreviated burying season begins, native remains will be returned to at least three remote villages by museum officials at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

"I call myself a cross-cultural mortician," says Gary Selinger, the museum official charged with returning the remains. In the last five years, he has helped villagers repatriate 450 bodies, most of them collected by scientists decades ago.

"Folks can get very upset," Selinger added. "I've been in some very emotional situations."

Once Selinger worked with a tribal member who discovered that the museum had the remains of his great-aunt in a cardboard box.

Most of the remains are bones kept in a storeroom at the museum, having been deposited there over the years by anthropologists who were studying, among other things, the migration of prehistoric peoples across the Bering Strait into North America.

For the people of Nulato, the return of the bodies is a matter of correcting a historic injustice and making things right with the spirit world.

Nulato Mayor Shirley Stickman, 37, traveled to Fairbanks last month to pick up the children's bodies and prepare them for the journey home. She felt uneasy doing so. No tribal elder could make the journey with her, so Stickman was thrust into a role that required her to carry out sacred traditions. She helped to build two small wooden coffins, lining the inside with white satin and purple ribbon.

Later, Stickman and Esmailka joined a Catholic priest in a brief ceremony at a Fairbanks park that included the ceremonial burning of a plate of food to feed the spirits of the children.

"I did the best I could," Stickman said, showing a certain defensiveness. "Any time you fool around with something like that, you have to have people with you."

Remains and artifacts from Alaskan villages have turned up in museums across the United States. Last year, tribal members and state officials in southeast Alaska helped complete the largest grave repatriation so far, the reburial of 114 bodies in Sitka.

In October, officials at the Smithsonian Institution returned to the Chugach people seven ancient masks that had been taken in 1875. The craft of mask-making has slowly died out among the Chugach in the century since the masks were taken; tribal leaders hope the newfound samples will help revive it.

The federal government offers small grants to tribes to pay for the costs of returning remains and artifacts. It also holds conferences to brief tribal members on the complex requirements of the law that makes the repatriations possible, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Children's Bodies Found in 1940s

It was at one such conference in Fairbanks this year that Esmailka learned about the two Nulato children.

The bodies had been found on the banks of the Yukon in the late 1940s by an anthropologist from UCLA. Before Europeans arrived, the Athabascan tribe here buried their dead near the river. The graves of the two children likely fell into the current when the riverbank eroded. They probably died more than a century ago.

"I came back and we had a town meeting to talk about what to do," said Esmailka, 37. The village elders picked a spot for the reburial in the town cemetery, high on a bluff overlooking the Yukon and a collection of ramshackle huts below.

When the two small skeletons are buried, the village will mark the event with a potlatch, or ceremonial feast.

To outsiders, the tribe's obsession with retrieving two anonymous corpses may seem odd. But in this small, tightknit village, the sense of community obligation is a strong one. Simply ignoring the children would be a failure that would reflect poorly on the entire village.

"Our belief is that if the bodies are not buried, their spirit is roaming around and they're not at rest," said Stickman, whose striking blue-green eyes hint at the part-Russian ancestry of many Native Alaskans here.

Nulato's elders had planned to bury the children on Memorial Day but delayed the ceremony when the Yukon flooded late last month and blocked the road to the dirt airstrip that is the village's main link to the outside world.

For the villagers, Memorial Day has become an occasion to hike up to the town cemetery to clean the graves. They also celebrate a potlatch with such delicacies as moose meat, heart and tongue, and fish ice cream.

It isn't the only day the village tends to the spirits of the departed. When Esmailka's brother died a few years back, several friends cleaned and dressed the body for burial. For the next two years, the Esmailkas prepared a "stick dance" that would eventually take place over the course of an entire week.

When the two lost children are reburied, however, there will be no stick dance.

"The stick dance is to honor their relatives," Esmailka explained. And for now, no one knows exactly who the children are related to in this town of 336 living souls.

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