LINCOLN, Neb. — Remains found in northeast and eastern Nebraska have been turned over to the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska for burial on the tribe's ancestral homeland along the lower Niobrara River.
Some of the human remains given to tribal representatives Wednesday were found nearly 60 years ago by workers building a railroad bridge in Knox County. Others were found in Platte County, and others by boys wandering along a creek bed in Butler County.
"Before Nebraska was a territory, before the Louisiana Purchase, we lived here," said Dwight Howe, cultural director of the tribe. "We've been in this place for hundreds of years and we are honored to be recognized as people of the land."
The return of the Ponca remains is part of a repatriation process begun in 1990, when the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act became federal law. The Nebraska State Historical Society, like all state, local and university museums that get federal money, had to inventory all the human remains in its custody. If archaeologists could determine which tribe they came from, they were to return them to the tribe.
Many of the Historical Society's remains were Pawnee, state archaeologist Rob Bozell said, and several reparations occurred with the tribe in late 1990s.
Archaeologists have struggled, however, to determine the origin of hundreds of other remains. Congress eventually revised the regulations so that unaffiliated remains can be repatriated based on geography, Bozell said. Also, archaeologists can follow clues: items buried with the remains, their location, the depth of the soil, the burial patterns.
"You can't tell with absolute certainty, but you have to look at the evidence you have," Bozell said. "It's an informed opinion."