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Native American remains unearthed by road crew

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Earlier this year, a road crew in Oscoda, Michigan found some bones while they were resurfacing a stretch of U.S. 23.  Scientists have recently confirmed the bones are Native American remains.

James Robertson is the Michigan Department of Transportation's senior archaeologist.

He says Oscoda's U.S. 23 road project had federal funding.  So, a 1990 law called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act went into effect.

This provides a process that returns human remains, valuable or sacred objects, and objects of cultural significance to Native American tribes.

These items are occasionally dug up around the state's former Native American lands.

But Robertson says MDOT's two staff archaeologists use a variety of tools to try and avoid disturbing sites at all.

"We use historical maps, previously known site locations and a whole battery of information to do our risk analysis. But our first priority is to avoid impacts whenever possible."

When they are human bones, Robertson says there are three steps.  First, they work with local authorities to determine if it’s a recent event.  If so, local law enforcement takes over.

If not, MDOT works with Michigan State University’s Forensic Science lab to determine the bones’ origin.  MSU's team identified the Oscoda remains as Native American.  So James Robertson is working with the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe.

William Johnson is the curator for the Ziibiwing Cultural Center for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe.

"The relationship between the Michigan Department of Transportation and the federally recognized Indian Tribe is strong."

Johnson is the lead for these kinds of situations. The center has been working closely with MDOT to rebury native remains – since 1996.  He says that final step is an important honor for their tribal members.

"The ceremonies normally start in the morning with the lighting of the sacred fire. The use of all the medicines like sage, sweet grass, and tobacco and cedar are used in the ceremonies. The ancestors are spoken to in the language, especially if those are ancient ancestors like many of them are."

Johnson says his tribe feels it’s a privilege to take care of the elders who provide the path that they follow today.

-Chris Zollars, Michigan Radio Newsroom