Who Owns the Ancestors?

Excavations near Victoria promise a scientific gold mine, but possible objections from Native American leaders leave the project's fate uncertain.

Recent archeological discoveries at a site near Victoria, about 100 miles southeast of Austin, could make the small coastal plains town a big spot on the scientific map. But no one knows if archeologists will ever get to examine those discoveries -- pending resolution of complex historical and legal claims on the remains.

Located on land owned by the DuPont Corp., the site contains artifacts and human remains estimated to be between 5,000 and 7,000 years old. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers discovered the site during construction of a project enlarging the Victoria Barge Canal, an inland waterway that connects industries near Victoria with the Gulf Coast 40 miles away. If excavated, the contents could yield a rare glimpse into the life of ancient North American people. "It's truly an extraordinary archeological site," says Jim Bruseth, director of the archeology division at the Texas Historical Commission. "The human remains from this site offer the potential to help address some of the basic questions about the peopling of the North American continent. It's not just an important archeological site, it's an extraordinary [one], of worldwide significance." Bruseth said the site represents 8% of the worldwide total of known remains this old or older.

But excavation remains on hold. The Corps and DuPont both want to consult with Native American leaders, among others, about what to do with the artifacts and remains. Based on the outcome of previous, similar consultations, it is possible that the findings could be reburied without further study.

Bruseth is "not very happy" with the Corps, which has deferred to DuPont and halted analysis of the findings until a consultation can be held with Native American leaders on how to handle the remains. He believes the Corps has reneged on a legal agreement with the THC to fully study the artifacts. The Commission does not oppose reburial of the human remains -- in fact, it fully supports reburial -- but only after scientists can perform a complete analysis. As for the artifacts found with the remains, Bruseth is against reburial (excavated items are currently stored in a private lab in Corpus Christi), and says those items should be displayed in a museum. "All we're saying is that since the Corps of Engineers has spent $900,000 of taxpayer money to excavate the remains, we need to follow through and we need to do a full analysis," Bruseth said. "We want see that done as quickly as possible on the human remains so that they can be reinterred in the ground."

The Corps says its consultations follow legal requirements, and that final dispensation of the findings is DuPont's decision to make. "It is certainly the intent of the Corps to comply with [the agreement]," says Carolyn Murphy, chief of the Galveston District Corps of Engineers' Environmental Affairs division. "The wild card in this is that DuPont has asserted its private property ownership of the collection, and as such has control over what ultimately happens."

Interestingly, while the Corps claims that DuPont holds the reins, DuPont spokesperson Amy Hodges said, "This is a Corps of Engineers-led process." DuPont won't decide about the findings until it gets as much input as possible from the various stakeholders, she added. The site is on a non-manufacturing area of the property, and DuPont has no objections to continued study. "The fact that this was discovered on our property is really exciting," Hodges said.

On Feb. 12, the Corps, DuPont, and THC will hold a private meeting in Victoria with tribal leaders, including the representatives of the Oklahoma-based Comanche Nation, the Mescalero Tribe of Apaches representing the Lipan, the Choctaw of Oklahoma, the Alabama-Coushatta of East Texas, and the Poarch Band of the Creek. Public meetings are planned for an unspecified future date.

Native American tribes sometimes use the Native American Graves Protection Act to block study of Indian remains found on government property, but according to Murphy, that law doesn't apply to the Victoria site because it is on private property. Instead, the Corps is applying Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which provides that tribes can become "consulting parties" that can provide input, but can't dictate the final outcome. The Feb. 12 meeting "is not a debate," Murphy said, "but an opportunity for [the tribes] to find out about the site and tell us their concerns."

In seeking comment from the Native American leaders, the Chronicle was successful in contacting only Jimmy Arterberry, Historic Preservation Officer for the Comanches. "The Comanche Nation has a repatriation policy," Arterberry said. "But on this particular case, we really haven't taken a position until we have a chance to talk with everybody there."

Asked if any tribe could claim oversight of remains that likely predate any modern tribe by thousands of years, Arterberry said: "Even though our histories are more recent in the state of Texas ... we have various bands and individuals that throughout history migrated. And, of course, there's been a lot of intermarriages with various nations. So we have relatives all the way up into Canada ... and all the way down to South America."

Bruseth of the THC believes "we should treat the remains with respect, and request [Native Americans'] guidance," but says the tribes should not be able to block further study of the objects. Citing theories that some of the first people in North America may have come from Europe, he added, "When you go back this far, these are everyone's ancestors, and we want to learn as much as we can." For more info on the Victoria site, see the Corps of Engineers' Web site at www.swg.usace.army.mil/pe/41VT98/

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