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Detail of Plateau Bag (NMNH catalog no. E204234)

Executive Summary

Inventory and Assessment of Human Remains and Funerary Objects from Unalakleet, Bering Straits Native Corporation, Alaska in the National Museum of Natural History

Region: Alaska
Associated Cultures: Inupiat, Yu'pik, Bering Straits Regional Corporation

In compliance with the repatriation provisions of Public Law 101-185 (20 U.S.C. Section 80q), the National Museum of the American Indian Act, this report provides a partial inventory and assessment of the cultural affiliation of the human remains and funerary objects in the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) from within the territorial boundaries of Native communities associated with the Bering Strait Native Corporation. This report pertains specifically to remains from the geographical region of Unalakleet, Alaska, in eastern Norton Sound.

Mr. Weaver Ivanoff, General Manager for the Native Community of Unalakleet, put forward a repatriation claim for return of remains from the region of Unalakleet on March 2, 1999. Remains of a minimum of 54 individuals, represented by 40 catalog numbers, in the Physical Anthropology division of the NMNH were identified as having come from this area. The remains were collected on two separate occasions in 1931, by James Ford and Moreau Chambers, and by Otto Geist.

A total of 52 associated funerary objects from Unalakleet, represented by 29 catalog numbers, were identified in the Archaeology Collection. Accession records for the objects clearly link them to the human remains, but it is not possible to associate particular objects with specific burials. The objects were removed by Chambers and Ford at the same time that the remains were removed. Several of the objects were of non-local origin, and date the remains to the 19th century A.D.

The human remains and objects in the NMNH Department of Anthropology collections were removed from areas adjacent to the mouth of the Unalakleet River. The majority of the remains were removed from a clearly demarcated cemetery located to the north of the present community. One was found in a midden context, and one may have been an isolated burial away from the cemetery. On the basis of manufacturing dates of associated non-native objects, it is suggested that most of the remains date to the 19th-20th century. One set of remains, from the midden, is not dated.

Unalakleet, situated at the western terminus of the shortest trail between Norton Sound and the Yukon River, has been continuously occupied since the early 19th century. Its advantageous location suggests that it had been inhabited even earlier, as long as trading between Siberia, western Alaska, and the Yukon basin has been established. At least three community sites have been identified, one dated to the early 19th century, one dated to the late 19th and 20th century, and one undated site to the north of the two previously mentioned. In 1838, after a smallpox epidemic, the 13 survivors moved the community from the south side of the river to the north, nearer to the Russian-American trading post. The community has been continuously occupied since that time by Yup'ik Unaaliq speakers, Inupiat Malamiut speakers, and Inupiat Qawiaraq speakers. Occasionally, the community has also absorbed Athabascan speakers.

The multi-cultural composition of Unalakleet, which has been noted since the 1830s, does not allow for association of the remains and objects from Unalakleet in the NMNH with a particular cultural group. It is, however, possible to associate these remains with the community of Unalakleet, as they date to a time after the establishment and continual occupation of the community. It was, therefore, the recommendation of the Repatriation Office that the human remains and objects in the NMNH from the vicinity of Unalakleet be offered for return to the Native community.

Repatriation Update
The human remains and funerary objects were deaccessioned for repatriation on March 16, 2000 and were returned to the Native Village of Unalakleet later that same year.

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