DVIDS – News – Coast Guard Repatriates Alaskan Native Remains to Point Spencer, Alaska



A plane carrying a box of unidentified and delicately wrapped human remains landed on a dirt runway in Point Spencer, Alaska on August 12, 2021. A surprised muskox raised clouds of dust as it galloped over Bering Sea bottom. Coast Guard physicist Ian Putnam disembarked and breathed in the 37-degree summer air with a solemn but content expression. Although he did not know who he was holding the remains to, he had now returned the bones to their place.

As the Natural and Cultural Resources Program Manager of the Environmental Management Directorate of the Coast Guard Civil Engineering Unit in Juneau, Putnam’s primary responsibility is to ensure Coast Guard compliance. to all environmental regulations and to ensure that natural and cultural resources are protected by law under the action of the Coast Guard. .

Putnam was just a member of the team tasked with resolving the difficulties of returning the remains to the site where they were accidentally collected during an archaeological dig on Coast Guard property near the former Long Range Aids to Navigation (LORAN) Station C at Port Clarence. Point Spencer and Port Clarence are located in Northwest Alaska on the Seward Peninsula, approximately 85 miles northwest of Nome and 75 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

The Coast Guard’s LORAN station in Port Clarence closed in 2010, after which the service provided access to the property for academic and government researchers due to the site’s cultural and historical significance.

Archaeologists have determined that hundreds of years ago, Point Spencer served as a traditional meeting point and commercial market for the Sinramiut and other regional Iñupiat bands. Neighboring Kauwerak residents traveled to Point Spencer every year to hunt marine mammals. The Sinramiut had ancestral ties and trade relations with the people of Little Diomede and Wales. Trade shows were held at Point Spencer during the summer and attracted Iñupiat groups from across the Bering Strait, the Arctic and northwestern Alaska.

“It is a site of exceptional importance to the ancestor Iñupiat for thousands of years,” said Edmund Gaines, archaeological consultant contracted with Brice Environmental, who was instrumental in the repatriation process. “We have layers upon layers of occupations, stretching back over two millennia.”

In 2013 and 2015, the Coast Guard authorized a joint research team from Portland State University (PSU) and the United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to conduct archaeological excavations and inventories at Point Spencer. The Coast Guard viewed the excavation as an opportunity to preserve cultural resources and mitigate damage to the site, while also allowing academic research on a historically rich place. A significant amount of non-human animal remains were recovered and transported to the PSU archaeological laboratory for analysis. Several of the recovered remains were later discovered to be of human or possibly human origin, taken from the site by mistake.

Suspected human elements included a phalanx (big toe), a distal part of a tibia, a fragment of a tibia stem, a fragment of long bone and a fragment of a tooth (canine). These remains have been determined to be somewhere between 300 and 550 years old, approximately.

Since the Native Alaskan human remains have been removed from federal lands, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) regulations set out in Part 10 of 43 CFR apply. As the federal land agency for all of Point Spencer at the time of the excavation, the Coast Guard was responsible for NAGPRA compliance.

“The Coast Guard has determined that the Indigenous Village of Teller and the Indigenous Village of Brevig Mission are traditionally associated with Port Clarence, based on what we understand to be the professional history of this specific landform (Point Spencer)” , Putnam said. “By examining the historical records there, we suspected that these tribes were most likely to be culturally affiliated with earlier groups who occupied and used the lands at the discovery site.”

The Aboriginal Village of Teller and the Aboriginal Village of Brevig Mission are federally recognized tribes.

The Coast Guard briefed the two villages and discussed the circumstances of the find and their status as potential claimants. After a detailed assessment of the remains and the context of the find in consultation with village officials, the Coast Guard recognized the Brevig mission as originally affiliated with the remains.

Teller Tribal Council and President Jenny Lee denied applicant status, while Brevig Mission Tribal Council and Indigenous Village President Gilbert Tocktoo claimed affiliation.

The Brevig Mission Tribal Council preferred that the Coast Guard assume responsibility for transportation and reburial at the site.

The Coast Guard prepared a NAGPRA action plan that detailed the transport of human remains, the transfer of jurisdiction and the reburial process. This plan was submitted to the Brevig Indigenous Village Mission on June 8, 2021.

The Coast Guard published a disposition notice in the Legal and Public Notices section of Anchorage Daily News, the most widely circulated and widely read newspaper in the area where the remains were found. The notice provided information on the nature and background of the remains and called for further custody requests. The notice was issued twice, one week apart, on July 4 and July 11, 2021. No other claimants came forward.

The Coast Guard waited 30 days after the publication of the second announcement to complete the transfer and reburial. The Coast Guard recovered the PSU’s remains on July 22, 2021. The remains were then hand transported to Alaska, where they have been stored in the secure collections of the Alaska State Museum. On August 12, 2021, the Coast Guard transported the remains to Port Clarence, where they were re-buried in a location as close as possible to the original discovery site.

“I am grateful for the support my teammates and I received from the Juneau Civil Engineering Unit command, 17th District command and Coast Guard headquarters support,” Putnam said. “Everyone felt that this was an important issue and gave us the flexibility to fully comply with the law in the spirit for which it was intended. We have done all we can to comply with NAGPRA in a meaningful way. Likewise, I thought that the native villages of Brevig Mission and Teller coordinated with us in good faith, and I am very grateful to them. As a result, we listened to the indigenous villages and incorporated their contribution into our repatriation plan, which was the most important part for me. It was a truly unique process to participate in, and I am proud to be a part. “

Putnam took a few minutes to pay homage to the lives of the people whose bones he brought to earth. He tilted his head to the wind and listened to the waves lapping the shore behind him, as they have for thousands of years.

Date taken: 10.01.2021
Date posted: 10.01.2021 09:42
Story ID: 406491
Site: AK, United States

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