FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) _ 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
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