Three Anaktuvuk Pass elders and a teenager were flying home, feeling sad and joyous at the same time. In their carry-on suitcase, they were bringing back the repatriated remains of a Nunamiut man.
“We don’t know the name but we know it’s one of us, one of our people,” Esther Hugo said. “The remains needed to be returned where they came from, and we felt that.”
Buried outside Anaktuvuk Pass in the 1800s, the remains were excavated and brought to the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University in the late 1950s. Elders Sollie Hugo, Esther Hugo, Louisa Riley and a youth, Aaliyah Wright, recently traveled to New Haven, Connecticut, and brought their ancestor home.
“We were just happy and overjoyed to bring him back to his homelands,” Sollie Hugo said. “The land is slowly trying to be healed by returning our ancestors back to where they came from.”
A closer look at the burial
When Sollie Hugo was a little boy, he used to walk by a burial site at the Brooks Range foothills, with a skull and trade beads showing above ground. Following tradition, he would walk around the site to not disturb the ancestor lying there. He thinks this was the ancestor they just brought back.
“One day, while we’re still children, it just disappeared from the site where it was,” said Hugo, who is also a curator at Simon Paneak Memorial Museum in the village. “That’s when we knew that he was taken away by the anthropologists.”
The remains and artifacts were excavated from three archaeological sites within the Brooks Range around 1958, said Jessie Cohen, repatriation compliance coordinator at the Yale Peabody Museum. One location had remains and funerary items while the other two contained only artifacts. All objects and remains were donated to the museum around the same time and were stored separately from the general collections, Cohen said.
Buried in the ground for at least a hundred years, most of the remains of the Nunamiut man have deteriorated except for the skull, Sollie Hugo said.
The ancestor was buried with cultural items, including beads, a hide and small tools such as a carving knife and bow tensioner. These artifacts show the man’s connection with the Nunamiut, the inland Iñupiat people located mostly around Anaktuvuk Pass, Cohen said.
When a person is buried with all his objects, Sollie Hugo said, in Nunamiut culture, it normally means that he’s a medicine man.
“Our belief is that if you take away the spirited medicine person from his resting place, you will disrupt the land,” Sollie Hugo said. “It will not be healed for a long time until he is returned.
“It’s very important that we brought him back.”
A call to come home
Congress recognized that human remains and other cultural items removed from federal or tribal lands belong to descendants under the federal Native American Graves and Protection Repatriation Act of 1990.
In 2015, the museum and the village of Anaktuvuk Pass started consultations regarding the collections excavated from the Brooks Range. Finally, this year, between Oct. 24 and 27, residents came to complete the physical transfer of the remains to Anaktuvuk Pass.
“To see this happening, it just brings you tears of joy and brings you a sense of peace,” Sollie Hugo said. “It makes you feel like this gentleman has finally quit calling us to come to get him from such a distance.”
When the Anaktuvuk Pass group arrived in New Haven, they had a ceremony with a Pequot medicine woman, Louisa Riley said.
“That was really important for us because our ancestor had been in that Indigenous region,” Riley said. “One of our values that we have is when we go to their homelands, to honor them and to thank them.”
During the ceremony, Riley said she was talking to the ancestor to welcome him back home.
“You know how you carry a big heavy bag on your back?” she said. “It just seemed to have disappeared at that time. … I had goosebumps and I had flashbacks.”
For Riley, the trip to the Yale Peabody Museum triggered a lot of memories, both good and bad. The most painful was to remember how, as a high school student, she translated to elders and adults in her village what the archaeologists were going to do with some of the excavated artifacts and remains from other burials.
“I keep seeing their faces, how hurt they were, and some of them got so angry, ‘How dare they do this with (our) ancestors?’” Riley said. She said that some of the adults asked what they could do to prevent excavations, but Riley did not know the answer. “And it was really painful. I felt helpless because I’m that bridge between the new way and the old way.”
To this day, Riley said she needs to deal with painful memories by keeping herself busy, connecting to her culture and staying emotionally grounded.
“This, to me, was a healing journey,” she said about the trip to Connecticut. “My wish is for other tribes to go through this process because I truly believe that this is going to start helping heal our people.”
A peaceful homecoming
Traveling with the remains from the museum was not easy. The group had to fill out paperwork with the Transportation Security Administration and secure the artifacts.
After the TSA employee looked through the suitcase with the remains, she told the group that her husband was Indigenous, and his tribe was working on the repatriation process as well.
“‘She said, ‘I am so proud of you,’” Riley said. “After that, I didn’t care anymore — we were blessed with that.”
The group transported most of the remains and artifacts in a pre-packaged, airtight suitcase as a carry-on without attracting much attention from passengers.
“We did not tell anybody that we had human remains in one of our carry-ons,” Sollie Hugo said. “We just had to be quiet all the way through the trip.”
For now, the remains are kept in the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum in an area with controlled temperature and humidity. The tribal council and the community will decide when they will rebury the remains and whether they want to display some of the artifacts in the museum or put everything back in the ground.
In Anaktuvuk Pass, residents came to the airport to greet the group with Indigenous songs and drumming.
“That was another thing that I will never forget in my life,” Esther Hugo said. “I didn’t expect them to be drumming and singing. … I just joined them.”
When Nunamiut people lose someone, Esther Hugo said, they always greet them at the airport, to take the body to the morgue and comfort the grieving family. But this greeting was different: the remains were absent from home for so long.
“A lot of people were telling us there was such peace and joy; that they felt when we were flying over with him,” Sollie Hugo said. “When we were coming back, there was a sense of great peace and a sense of healing.”