Three Anaktuvuk Pass elders and a teenager were returning home feeling both sad and happy. In their hand luggage, they brought back the repatriated remains of a Nunamiut man.
“We don’t know the name, but we know it’s one of us, one of us,” said Esther Hugo. “The remains had to be returned where they came from, and we felt that.”
Buried outside Anaktuvuk Pass in the 1800s, the remains were excavated and brought to Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History in the late 1950s. Elders Sollie Hugo, Esther Hugo, Louisa Riley and a youngster, Aaliyah Wright, recently traveled to New Haven, Connecticut, and brought their ancestor home.
“We were just happy and excited to bring him back to his homeland,” Sollie Hugo said. “The earth is slowly trying to heal by bringing our ancestors back to where they came from.”
Focus on the burial
When Sollie Hugo was a little boy, he used to walk by a grave site at the foot of Brooks Range, with a skull and trade beads appearing above the ground. According to tradition, he walked around the site so as not to disturb the ancestor who was there. He thinks it was the ancestor they just brought back.
“One day, when we were still children, he just disappeared from the site where he was,” said Hugo, who is also a curator at the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum in the village. “That’s when we knew he had been taken away by the anthropologists.”
The remains and artifacts were excavated from three archaeological sites in the Brooks Range around 1958, said Jessie Cohen, repatriation compliance coordinator at the Yale Peabody Museum. One location contained remains and grave goods while the other two contained only artifacts. All of the artifacts and remains were donated to the museum around the same time and were stored separately from general collections, Cohen said.
Buried in the ground for at least a hundred years, most of the Nunamiut man’s remains have deteriorated except for the skull, Sollie Hugo said.
The ancestor was buried with cultural artifacts including beads, skin, and small tools such as a carving knife and bow stretcher. These artifacts show the man’s connection to the Nunamiut, the inland Iñupiat people located primarily around Anaktuvuk Pass, Cohen said.
When a person is buried with all their belongings, Sollie Hugo said, in Nunamiut culture it normally means they are a healer.
“Our belief is that if you remove the fiery healer from his resting place, you will disturb the earth,” Sollie Hugo said. “He won’t be healed for a long time until he’s returned.
“It’s very important that we bring him back.”
A call to come home
Congress has recognized that human remains and other cultural objects removed from federal or tribal lands belong to descendants under the federal Native American Burials and Repatriation Protection Act of 1990.
In 2015, the museum and the village of Anaktuvuk Pass began consultations regarding the collections extracted from the Brooks Range. Finally, this year, between October 24 and 27, residents came to complete the physical transfer of the remains to Anaktuvuk Pass.
“To see this happen, it brings you tears of joy and brings you a sense of peace,” Sollie Hugo said. “It gives you the impression that this gentleman has finally stopped calling us to pick him up from such a distance.”
When the Anaktuvuk Pass group arrived in New Haven, they held a ceremony with a Pequot healer, Louisa Riley said.
“It was really important to us because our ancestor was in that native area,” Riley said. “One of our values that we have is when we go to their homelands, to honor and thank them.
During the ceremony, Riley said she spoke to the ancestor to welcome him home.
“You know how you carry a big heavy bag on your back? ” she says. “He just seemed to have disappeared at the time. … I got goosebumps and I had flashbacks.
For Riley, the trip to the Yale Peabody Museum triggered a lot of memories, both good and bad. Most painful was remembering how, as a high school student, she explained to elders and adults in her village what archaeologists were going to do with some of the excavated artifacts and remains from other burials.
“I keep seeing their faces, how hurt they were, and some of them got so angry, ‘How dare they do this with (our) ancestors?'” Riley said. She said some of the adults asked what they could do to prevent the searches, but Riley didn’t know the answer. “And it was really painful. I felt helpless because I’m this bridge between the new and the old.
To this day, Riley said she has to deal with painful memories of caring, connecting to her culture and staying emotionally grounded.
“For me, it was a healing journey,” she said of the trip to Connecticut. “My wish is for other tribes to go through this process because I truly believe it will start to help heal our people.”
A peaceful return
Traveling with the remains in the museum was not easy. The group had to file paperwork with the Transportation Security Administration and secure the artifacts.
After the TSA employee looked into the suitcase with the remains, she told the group that her husband was indigenous and his tribe was also working on the repatriation process.
“‘She said, ‘I’m so proud of you,'” Riley said. “After that, I didn’t care – we were blessed with it.”
The group transported most of the remains and artifacts in a pre-packaged airtight suitcase as carry-on baggage without attracting much notice from the passengers.
“We didn’t tell anyone that we had human remains in any of our carry-on bags,” Sollie Hugo said. “We just had to be quiet the whole trip.”
For now, the remains are kept at the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum in a temperature and humidity controlled area. The tribal council and the community will decide when they will reinter the remains and whether they want to display some of the artifacts in the museum or put everything back in the ground.
At Anaktuvuk Pass, residents came to the airport to greet the band with native songs and drums.
“It’s another thing that I will never forget in my life,” said Esther Hugo. “I didn’t expect them to drum and sing. … I just joined them.
When the Nunamiut lose someone, says Esther Hugo, they always meet them at the airport, to take the body to the morgue and comfort the grieving family. But this greeting was different: the remains had been missing from the house for so long.
“A lot of people were telling us there was such peace and joy; they felt when we were flying with him,” said Sollie Hugo. “When we came back, there was a feeling of great peace and a feeling of healing.”
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