“Bones of Contention” almost laid to rest 

Thomas' long walk

Despite strong opposition from scientists, the Montana Senate last week approved a wide-ranging bill that allows broader repatriation of human remains and burial objects.

Indian tribes around the state lobbied heavily for House Bill 165, forwarded by Flathead Reservation cultural leaders and sponsored by Rep. Gail Gutsche, a Missoula Democrat. A coalition of archeologists tried to derail the measure, but only succeeded in gaining a few amendments. Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee spent hours rewriting the bill before voting 8-1 to send it to the Senate floor. The Senate on Saturday approved HB 165 by a 47-1 margin, and it will now be reconsidered in the House. The only person voting against the bill was Sen. Ric Holden (R-Glendive).

HB 165 significantly expands the state’s Human Skeletal Remains and Burial Site Protection Act to include remains and funerary items found on state and private land before 1991. It also creates a detailed process for returning the materials to parties that can show they’re directly related or “culturally affiliated” with the discoveries. Tribal leaders say the changes are needed to ensure that the bones of their ancestors—and the ceremonial objects they were interred with—are treated with dignity. Saying the practice is disrespectful, they argued against having remains studied by scientists.

As part of the give-and-take, the amended version of the bill calls for artifacts found at a Park County site in 1968 to be exempted from the law. The so-called Anzick Collection is revered by researchers and the Montana Historical Society because it is among the oldest finds in the nation. Human bones that were dug up with the items would not be exempted, even though no tribes have yet filed claims to repatriate them.

During negotiations last week, language also was added to cover multiple claims and to allow limited scientific research. The bill says human remains and burial objects aren’t abandoned property, however, and they can’t be owned by a discoverer. Being forced to relinquish the items also can’t be deemed an unlawful “takings” without compensation.

“I think the amendments were a good compromise,” Gutsche says. “I would have liked the Anzick Collection kept in, but the human remains still are. HB 165 fills in the gaps the current law has. Now we have ongoing protection.”

“This is just a difficult process, but we now have a bill I think everyone can live with,” adds Historical Society Director Arnie Olsen, who fought for changes. “I’ve never seen a bill yet that at the start everyone loves and holds hands with.”

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