2012-02-11 / News

Excavated Human Remains Are Repatriated at Catholic Cemetery

By Wesley Maurer, Jr.


A Belonga Excavating truck deposits earth containing human remains at the city’s Catholic cemetery while representatives of Save Our Island document the work on Mackinac Island Thursday, December 29. A new burial mound, made from earth taken from a downtown excavation site where human remains were discovered, will be constructed in the shape of a turtle and will feature a memorial to Native tribes before and after first contact with Europeans. A Belonga Excavating truck deposits earth containing human remains at the city’s Catholic cemetery while representatives of Save Our Island document the work on Mackinac Island Thursday, December 29. A new burial mound, made from earth taken from a downtown excavation site where human remains were discovered, will be constructed in the shape of a turtle and will feature a memorial to Native tribes before and after first contact with Europeans. Human bones unearthed at a Mackinac Island construction site have found a new resting place at the city’s Catholic cemetery, under a plan approved by the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, the City of Mackinac Island, the Mackinac Island State Park Commission, and developer Ira Green in December. More than 350 yards of excavated dirt containing the remains was moved to the cemetery in late December, and will be molded into the shape of a turtle this spring.

In addition, the city is working on new guidelines for future discovery of human remains in the city. The park, which encompasses 81% of the Island, already has policies in place, although the commission’s solution, which is to rebury the bones where found, may not be adopted by the city.

The preliminary plan was discussed by the Mackinac Island State Park Commission Wednesday, December 14, and the city agreed to the cemetery location Monday, December 19. Remains were unearthed following demolition of McNally Cottage November 1, as the foundation for the new Bicycle Street Inn hotel was being excavated. The site, near the intersection of Main and Hoban streets, is thought to be part of an old cemetery adjacent to the Catholic parish of Ste. Anne, which was moved to Mackinac Island when Fort Mackinac was built in 1780-81. The church was later moved to the east end of town and the cemetery was removed to a new St. Ann’s Cemetery near the middle of the Island. In the years following, however, human remains have continued to be unearthed as the downtown land is developed.

The tribe’s cultural repatriation specialist, Cecil Pavlat, and Anthony Trayser, a representative of Save Our Island, which called public attention to the excavated remains, attended the December park commission meeting in East Lansing to propose the repatriation, armed with letters of support from the city, Bay Mills, Little Traverse Bay Bands, and ethnologist Wesley Andrews of Ann Arbor.

Commissioner Jim Williams, a Catholic priest with strong ties to northern Indian communities, supported the cemetery burial, saying the remains, whether of Indian or European birth, are nevertheless Catholic.

“I have been pastor here for the past 20 years, and from what I have heard, I personally believe that that really is the Catholic cemetery,” he said of the general area of the McNally house. “They may be Native American, but I also believe, with the rules of the Catholic Church back then, that they were Catholic, practicing Catholic, or they would not have been buried there.”

He noted that most of the parishioners at Ste. Anne’s church are members of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and are buried at the Catholic cemetery, and that, today, the members regard the cemetery as a holy place.

A place in the cemetery was set aside last summer to repatriate Indian bones sent back from the Smithsonian Institution, said Mackinac State Historic Parks Director Phil Porter. He proposed a mound close by. Skull Cave, which was a Native burial site before the British military moved to the Island, would also be nearby.

The cemetery property is owned by the state park and the cemetery is owned and operated by the City of Mackinac Island, Fr. Williams pointed out. As a Catholic priest, he said, “I have no authority over it.”

But in recommending the site, he said the parish wants to see the matter handled respectfully.

Other bones were found near the McNally site several years ago, he noted.

“It is a great scandal the way it was handled years ago” when the cemetery was moved, he said, “that they just allowed buildings to be built there. This has been a great sadness and regret to the Catholic church for many years that they were not treated respectfully.”

Mr. Pavlat said he agrees that the remains probably are Catholic.

“I don’t contend that they are not,” he said, “but what I say is that they are human beings, and they deserve the respect that any other human being deserves, and I would bury them with the same respect whether they are Anishinaabeg or not.”

“Scandal,” he said to Fr. Williams, is a good word to describe the desecration of remains in the past, whether through construction or archaeology, but he noted, “I am not here to point fingers. I am not here to make demands. I am here to take an unfortunate situation and make the best of it that we can, in a collaborative way, in a cooperative way in a place that we hold sacred.”

Mr. Pavlat’s request for repatriation of the remains began with a long prayer in Ojibwa that he said was addressed to “the ones who were here before.”

“When I spoke our language,” he said, “I spoke it for them, so that they could understand, the ones that were here before this English tongue, and that they could come and be part of this, and bring that direction that’s needed.”

The idea for the turtle mound, he said, came after discussions with many people on the Island and with the ancestors, and he noted that Mackinac means great turtle and it describes the Island as a place held sacred.

The opportunity to build a turtle shaped burial mound, he said, would be an opportunity to educate people on pre-European contact, as well as post-European contact.

A similar burial mound was created in Emmet County, noted Mr. Andrews, the ethnologist, in his letter of support to the commission, and it preserved as much of the physical and cultural integrity to the burials as is possible given the circumstances of disturbance. The same can be accomplished for the McNally Cottage soil.

Like the site there, Mr. Pavlat noted, the monument associated with it could interpret the history both in English and Ojibwa.

Mr. Porter also suggested that, in the future, only the human remains from private property, and not the associated soil excavated with them, be allowed to be reburied on state park land, and he noted that the commission has a policy of reinterring such remains at or close to where they where discovered. And while Mr. Andrews wrote that nearby reburial has been an acceptable practice, Mr. Pavlat suggested that the city may want to consider other options, too.

“I understand his job, in terms of protection of what he believes to be Mackinac State Historic Parks Commission land,” Mr. Pavlat said of Mr. Porter’s remarks, “but before it belonged to Mackinac State Historic Parks, it belonged to Anishinaabeg, and it was never lived on, it was a burial ground. It was not lived on until European contact.”

Putting the remains back where they were found isn’t always a good solution in a development site.

“We’ve all heard the stories about, during construction, if you found remains you were told, ‘Do not speak of it.’ And those remains would be put back in that construction pit. Is that respectful? Would you want that of your grandparents? Your relatives?” he asked.

As for the associated dirt, the chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, Joe Eitrem, pointed out in his letter to the commission that it contains fragments of the ancestors, and Mr. Andrews wrote, “From an Anishinawbe cultural perspective, the body has two souls, one that travels to the land of the Dead and another that stays with the body forever. Portions of the body have been absorbed by the soil surrounding it, resulting in the body, soul, and the adjacent soil having become a single spiritual entity. Subsequently, sifting the soil would compromise the physical and cultural integrity of the burials within it. Whenever possible, the excavated soil that surrounds a burial should be treated and preserved in the same manner as would an individual human body that is buried.”

The developer, Ira Green, did not attend the meeting, but park commissioners declared the problem is his and the responsibility to pay for a solution is his.

When formed, the shell of the turtle mound will be divided into 13 segments to reflect the Native American culture of 13 moons in a year, Mr. Pavlat said.

He wants the tribe to place a memorial plaque in English and Ojibwe, and panels to educate visitors about the history of Native American culture on the Island. He envisions a permanent plaque made from black marble.

Mr. Pavlat said most of the work will be done by hand, instead of heavy machinery, to avoid damage to the bones underneath the mound.

These attempts to preserve the evidence of Native American culture on Mackinac Island, Mr. Pavlat said, have helped develop connections between the Sault Tribe and the Mackinac Island community. The support from the community and the city council, he said, helped find a permanent resting place for the ancestral remains.

“The hope is that this will help bring the Native American community and the Island community together,” Mr. Pavlat said. “It’s all about cooperation and collaboration. We don’t always have to be on opposite sides. I think that’s important. This will be another example of cooperative effort.”

Matt Mikus contributed to this story.

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