Much learned from exhumed remains: Sixth-graders overnight camping trip yields more than expected -- Kenaitze Indian Tribe ancestor

Posted: Friday, February 26, 2010

Gene Palm, an instructor at Aurora Borealis Charter School in Kenai, has for several years taken his sixth-grade classes for overnight field trips on the beach of his Nikiski property, not far from Boulder Point.

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Photos By Joseph Robertia
Photos By Joseph Robertia
During a presentation to the Kenaitze Indian Tribe two weeks ago, tribal member Michael Bernard, above, looks at the artifacts recovered from the excavation of an Athabascan corpse found in Nikiski this past summer. The woman buried there was believed to have died sometime around 1850.

The purpose of the excursion is exploration, discovery and knowledge, all of which resulted after this past summer's trip, and for more than just the students of Palm's class.

"One of the boys who was setting up a tent came over and told me he had found a body," Palm said. "It was basically the torso. We could see the shoulders sticking out, and there was a jaw bone in the scree just below it."

Palm thought the bones looked old, and he remembered taking an anthropology course at Kenai Peninsula College about a decade earlier, so he called his former professor, Dr. Alan Boraas, and asked him how he should proceed.

Boraas advised Palm to call the Alaska State Troopers to rule out foul play -- which after investigation they did -- and then contact the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, since the remains may have been from one of their ancestors.

After learning of the corpse, Sasha Lindgren, a Kenaitze member and the tribe's Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act consultant, said the tribe decided to work toward excavating the remains to learn all they could about the life of whoever the person was that was buried there.

"A lot of tribes don't allow analysis of physical remains," Lindgren said. "But our elders agreed to allow non-evasive studies if a tribal member is present to ensure the proper respect."

To assist the tribe in their efforts, archaeologists were brought in from the State Office of History and Archaeology, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Kenai Peninsula College.

"We all worked together to get the information," Lindgren said.

Over a three-day period this past summer they excavated the site on Palm's property, and the remains were brought to the Fish and Wildlife Service laboratory in Anchorage for analysis.

Two weeks ago, skeletal biologist Erin Ryder returned to the Kenaitze the bones and other items that were recovered, and presented the findings of her research.

"We recovered 152 elements," Ryder said, referring to bones and other parts. "So the human skeleton was about 70 percent complete."

From studying the skull, teeth and other features of these bones, Ryder said she determined the skeleton belonged to a female Athabascan, rather than someone of Eskimo or Caucasian origins.

This woman would have been between 5 feet, 5 inches and 5 feet, 8 inches tall, and between the ages of 21 to 52, but probably somewhere around 35 years old when she died, Ryder said.

"She was in excellent physical condition, with no major problems, no evidence of trauma and with no indications of what the cause of death was," she added.

Ryder said the only health problem that could be found was that the woman had very worn down teeth on one side, and an active infection to her jaw on the opposite side.

"From deposits on the teeth she also had a build up of calcite (tartar)," Ryder added, "which suggests an increased diet of carbohydrates -- such as flour -- which would have come post-contact with the Russians."

This isn't the only evidence of the timeframe in which the woman may have lived and died. Since Athabascans traditionally cremated their dead, the very fact that the woman was buried suggested a likely time frame.

"It wasn't until after the 1850s, when the Athabascans began converting to Russian Orthodoxy, that they began burying the dead," Ryder said. "So we believe this woman lived sometime between 1830 to 1867, with her death likely after 1850."

This mid-19th century timeframe was also deduced after analysis of the few artifacts found with the corpse, which included several small, glass beads, a hand-wrought iron spike and hand-made scissors. There also was wood, but not from a definable box or coffin.

As to the beads, there were very localized.

"The beads were all right around the head, and there wasn't a lot of them, so it's possible they were part of a headdress or earrings," said Margan Grover, an independent archaeological consultant working with the Fish and Wildlife Service on this project.

Grover said unfortunately, the beads were not unique enough to suggest a place of origin, such as Italy, Russian or China, where many beads were made during this time period.

"The beads were too common to pinpoint an origin," she said.

The spike, Grover said, was a much more intriguing artifact.

"Iron spikes were pounded out and used to make blades and other tools, so they would have been really valuable," she said. "It's likely this was an item of value or significance, more so than a coffin decoration."

The scissors were handmade and hand-filed, which according to Grover suggests they were made prior to 1840, after which time manufactured scissors became more readily available in this region.

This item brought an equal amount of speculation as to its cultural significance for being buried with the woman. According to Lindgren scissors represented much more than just a utilitarian tool.

"Cutting implements mean a lot," she said.

There are Athabascan stories that relate to using scissors to "cut pain," and she remembers her Dena'ina grandmother putting scissors under her bed while Lindgren was giving birth to her own children.

While the spike and scissors were the only two metal items found, it is believed there may have been other, thinner metal items that did not survive the test of time.

"The (pinky finger bone) on one hand was stained blueish-green, which is suggestive of possible a copper ring, but nothing was found," Ryder said. "The same (finger bone) on the other hand was also stained a rust color."

In addition to the human remains and artifacts found, a canine skull was also retrieved during the excavation, but this item was buried roughly 10 inches above the corpse.

"We're not sure how it relates," Ryder said. "Other than saying it was a dog, and not a fox or any other canine, we don't know what the cultural significance was, or if it was even associated to the burial."

The Kenaitze Tribal Council reflected on the presentation, and council member Jon Ross said he was happy with the tribe's decision to allow the excavation and research.

"It was very interesting and I appreciate all the hard work that went into this," he said. "It was a good thing to look at, to study, and to think about our history."

Lindgren said she hopes other people who find remains or artifacts on their property will be encouraged by this example, and contact the tribe to form a relationship.

"These things are all over," she said, "so I hope others who find them will call because there's so much we can all learn, and like the elders taught me, working together is the best way."

The council is considering a request by Ryder to present her research to peers during an upcoming archaeological conference, and council member Rose Tepp said the information could be beneficial to more than just Kenaitze tribal members.

"It's very important for non-Natives to learn too," she said. "It's good knowledge for all of us."

Boraas, who in addition to being an anthropologist is also an honorary member of the tribe, said he believed the information already learned from analyzing the remains shouldn't be the end on this subject, but rather the beginning.

"The rest of the story -- the human story -- must be put back into this," he said. "It must be told, and told carefully."

Joseph Robertia can be reached at

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