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Judge: Navajo lawsuit over human remains premature

FLAGSTAFF -- A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit that sought to have human remains exhumed from Canyon de Chelly on the Navajo reservation returned to the tribe.

The Navajo Nation contended in a 2011 lawsuit that hundreds of sets of human remains and associated funerary objects taken from the national monument near Chinle are tribal property. Despite demands for the remains, the National Park Service has unrightfully held them in a collection in Tucson, the lawsuit stated.

The Park Service argued the lawsuit was premature because the agency has not yet figured out whether other tribes have cultural affiliations to the items, a determination that is needed before the items can be repatriated.

U.S. District Court Judge Paul Rosenblatt agreed in a ruling last week and dismissed the case. He said the federal government has not identified a final action that would allow it to be sued.

The National Park Service is charged with preserving the thousands of artifacts and ruins within Canyon de Chelly, but the land revered by Navajos as sacred remains tribally owned.

Park Service spokesman James Doyle on Tuesday declined to discuss the judge's ruling or the status of the review of the cultural items under a federal law known as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

It's unclear whether the Navajo Nation will challenge the ruling. Officials with the tribe's Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.

Archaeologists curious about American Indian cultures dug up human remains and funerary objects at Canyon de Chelly decades ago, some of which were taken for protection from erosion in the canyon with towering red, sandstone walls.

The Navajo Nation wanted the Park Service to return the items immediately for proper burial. The tribe said it never allowed the agency or any other entity to carry off remains or cultural objects from the place it calls "tsegi" or "within the rock" because that would have contradicted traditional Navajo laws and violated the rights of tribal members.

The Park Service has said it plans to return the items but first must determine which tribe or tribes are their rightful owners. Possible candidates include the Navajo, Zuni Pueblo, Hopi, Apaches or Utes, officials said.

Canyon de Chelly has been inhabited for thousands of years, with artifacts and cliff dwellings lining the canyon walls dating from the 4th to the 14th centuries.

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