Remains being prepared for Nulato repatriation

Posted: Sunday, May 27, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- As Larry Esmailka held a piece of white satin, Shirley Stickman cut it to fit inside a tiny, wooden casket.

The two, standing in an open garage in Shannon Park, were preparing caskets for two children long dead and whose parents are unknown. But Esmailka and Stickman believe the children, who lived perhaps more than a century ago, probably have relatives in their own community of Nulato, where almost everyone is related to almost everyone else.

That is why they have come.

''We don't want them laying at the university,'' Esmailka said.

''They wouldn't rest,'' Stickman added.

Stickman wrapped the edge of the satin around cardboard from a Sailor Boy pilot bread box before stapling it to the inside of a coffin.

The coffins, perhaps the size of rather large bread boxes, were made by a local craftsman. After lining the insides, Esmailka and Stickman will collect the children's remains from storage at the University of Alaska Museum. A 1990 federal law says they have a right to do so.

The two believe the children, whose ages at death were probably about 2 and 5, were originally buried near the Yukon River about 150 years ago and that their eroding graves were disturbed by anthropologists, who brought the remains -- a few skull fragments -- to the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

In Nulato, a headstone on the new grave of the two children will read ''Our children. Taken in 1948. Returned May 2001.'' This is the first grave repatriation for Nulato.

''Come on sun,'' said Stickman, as clouds darkened the sky. She is 35 years old and the village mayor. She worked quietly, patiently and expertly to line the caskets, all the while feeling a bit out of sorts: Coffins are usually prepared in the presence of elders, who give guidance.

''It's really sad to do this,'' she said. ''I have strong feelings about this, wondering who they are.''

Esmailka agreed.

''It's kind of sad knowing these remains were up here so many years,'' he said.

Esmailka, 37, is on the Nulato Village Council. He spurred this repatriation after attending a repatriation conference in Fairbanks and returning to Nulato to inform the village council of the two displaced children.

The council probably received a letter from the museum years ago offering the return of the children, but the letter is thought to have been misplaced or filed away.

''The elders believe that the spirits of the children are roaming, kind of wandering around and lost,'' Esmailka said. ''Our elders believe bringing the kids back home will bring peace and tranquility to the community. They figure it will be a better place to live, that people will have more luck.

''This is a big superstition for the people.''

Esmailka and Stickman placed the children's remains in the caskets Friday after burning food for them. The food is for the spirits' journey back to the afterlife. The children's spirits will also have a toothbrush, toothpaste, perhaps a comb, and rosaries, which will be placed in the caskets.

Stickman trimmed the white satin in purple ribbon and glued some of the ribbon to crosses carved into the casket's lids. If the sexes of the children were known, the satin might be pink or blue.

It's tradition that women decorate the caskets. Stickman has prepared many caskets, having learned by watching her elders.

The leftover scraps from the casket preparations, thrown in a pile to the side, will be burned. The scraps cannot be used for anything else because, for the Lower Koyukon Athabascan people, that would be bad luck.

''Every little staple, even if a staple dropped in here,'' said Stickman, pointing to the inside of one of the caskets, ''you have to pick up everything.''

A service is planned once the children are brought back to Nulato. They will be buried by men exclusively, another tradition. A potlatch will follow.

(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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