Feud erupts over reburial of ancestral remains

Photo shows the human skeletal remains from an emergency recovery at the breadfruit-collection area in the Guam National Wildlife Refuge's Ritidian Unit. The remains were recovered in October 2005. Contributed photo

THE National Wildlife Refuge has cancelled its reburial ceremony for the two sets of ancient remains found in Ritidian eight years ago, due to objections from the Department of Chamorro Affairs and the Guam Historic Preservation Office.

The refuge called off the event scheduled for tomorrow in response to Chamorro Affairs President Joseph Artero-Cameron’s demand to cease the reburial plans, “until adequate documentation is submitted to the authorized entity.”

“Should you still plan to proceed without the proper documentation, i.e. acceptable osteology report and an acceptable plan, then I, the authorized representative under the [Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act] for indigenous rights, am claiming those ancestral remains as the property of the indigenous people,” Artero-Cameron said in a July 17 letter to National Wildlife Refuge Manager Joseph Schwagerl.

Osteology study

The human skeletal remains that belonged to a woman and a child were found at the breadfruit-collection area in the refuge's Ritidian unit in October 2005 after they had been disturbed in two of several pig-disturbance pits. They are believed to be 400 to 500 years old.

“At the two burial features, no grave-goods or offerings were evident. The excavations recovered artifacts and midden only from the surrounding cultural deposit, associated with the general habitation of the site,” stated the osteology report prepared by Dr. Mike T. Carson.

The report was based on the osteology study by Karen Kadohiro.

“The burial pits had been dug into the existing cultural deposit, apparently toward the end of the period of site-use, most likely in the range of the 1400s through 1600s according to radiocarbon dating and stratigraphic association,” the report said.

The report said the bones were in poor condition and many were fragmented, but the cranium maxilla, mandible and remaining long-bones were successfully reconstructed.

The female’s teeth showed partial red-color staining, which is presumed to have been caused by the chewing of betelnut.

Burial plans

Schwagerl said the refuge prepared reburial plans for the ancient remains in adherence to Chamorro traditions. He said the ceremony involved cultural leaders and performers.

“We have prepared signs in both English and Chamorro identifying the site as an ancient Chamorro burial site. We are in the process of preparing a permanent monument,” Schwagerl said.

Schwagerl said HPO is demanding a further osteology study, which he said would not be possible without jeopardizing the integrity of the bone parts.

“These partial remains of a woman and child were buried for hundreds of years and are in no condition for additional analysis and the purpose is not evident,” Schwagler said.

He said the Guam Historic Preservation Office disagreed with the refuge's plan to bury the remains directly into the ground, and wants the skeletons to be placed in a container along with the documents.

“They were asking for documentation and a report which we have already submitted to them in 2005,” Schwagerl told Variety. “They accepted the report but we never received a response from them. Now they are saying they don’t have the report.”

Variety sought comments from Historic Preservation Officer Lynda Aguon, but phone calls had not been returned as of press time.

“We do not know when or if this issue may be resolved, and fear that they will continue to be stored as hundreds of other ancestral bones are being stored all over the island. This is unacceptable to us, and mostly likely the ancestors. But we will do our best to find a solution,” Schwagerl said.

“It has been our hope that these ancient Chamorro ancestors be returned to their place of rest, rather than locked in a storage cabinet as they have been since 2005,” he added.

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