The first set of bones was found almost five years ago by crews building the Jackson Flat Dam Water Supply Storage Facility near Kanab. Over a year’s time, a total of 54 sets of bones were found. One set of bones was left undisturbed.
There are still some legal loose ends to tie up, but reburial is expected sometime in the end of May or early June.
But emotions remain strong for tribal leaders despite the long-sought resolution.
In a recent letter to KSL, Charley Bulletts, director of Cultural Resources for the Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians, wrote on behalf of the tribe, "This sacred burial ground should never have been disturbed in the first place."
The remains of 53 Native Americans, unearthed nearly five years ago during a construction project, are kept in this metal box near Kanab shown here in February 2012. (Winston Armani, Deseret News)
One's burial place is considered hallowed ground, he said. Blessing the burial site is to make it sanctified.
"The burials at Jackson Flat are no different from that of the white man," the letter said. "These people were loved. They were carefully and lovingly placed in the ground."
An agreement calls for reburial close by, in unmarked graves protected by a conservation easement.
“They will be returned, respectfully, to Mother Earth in accordance with the tribe’s wishes,” Jackson Flat Project archaeology manager Kenny Wintch said. They will be left undisturbed for perpetuity.
Archaeologists say the people were originally buried about 1,000 years ago. The archaeologists uncovered 30 pit houses, and they believe many more remain hidden beneath the surface of the site. They also found about 100 smaller structures that were evidently used to store food crops such as corn, beans and squash. Families of the ancient Puebloan culture are believed to have lived on the site, more or less continuously, through many generations.
Detailed archaeological work and lengthy negotiations, required by a new federal law, took far longer than anyone expected. Substantive agreements are complete, but several details and signatures are still pending.
"The law gave the Indians a seat at the table,” Wintch said. “Traditionally they haven't had a seat at the table when it comes to their ancestors. That was wrong."
For everyone involved, the long delay in achieving a final resolution has made it an agonizingly slow process.
"No, I'm not comfortable with that (delay), but all things considered, in this circumstance, it's the best we could do," Wintch said.
Bulletts said the tribe supports the plan for reburial of the remains in an area adjacent to the dam. "We are doing our best to honor and respect them," he said, "and to keep them close to the resting place of their spirit."
But archaeologists did not find evidence validating the Paiute claim of an ancestral relationship. Many archaeologists believe modern-day tribes moved in after earlier peoples left or disappeared.
One unresolved concern is that more bodies might be still buried in an area the dam will flood. The Paiutes say they're relieved by assurances from the Kane County Water Conservancy District that those areas will be kept dry until archaeologists finish their field work.