Bill would further protect prehistoric Indian burial sites

"Paiute basket maker," 1902 - photo: Charles C. Pierce/Library of Congress

Since the passage of Senate Bill 244 in 2017, a private land owner in Nevada who knows there is a prehistoric burial site on their property must get a permit from the Director of the  Nevada State Museum to excavate any part of the parcel, except for when the specific object of the development activity is not the excavation of a prehistoric Indian burial site. In that context, without limitation, construction, mining, or farming projects can proceed without the need for a permit under existing law.

Assemblywoman Susie Martinez represents part of Clark County and is the primary sponsor of Assembly Bill 103, a bill that further outlines needed permitting steps if there is a known prehistoric site on private land in Nevada. In her presentation to the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources today, she acknowledged that SB244 was a big step forward in preserving the region’s prehistoric heritage, but the law needs amendment. AB103 would mandate that no permit is needed if “the activity occurs only on a portion of the private lands that does not contain the known prehistoric Indian burial site.”

Michon Eben manages the Cultural Resources Program for the Reno/Sparks Indian Colony and helped present AB103.

“Our rich history and heritage have been passed down from our ancestors, many of whom are buried throughout the state of Nevada in their final resting places. The core theme of AB103 is to ensure protection of our ancestors final resting place where they were originally buried and to ensure Nevada tribes are part of the discussions and decisions made affecting the management, treatment, and disposition of Native American special human remains.”

Eben said that AB103 is a necessary acknowledgement that tribal heritage is honored and has standing with the state government.

“The understanding of Native American culture has often been reduced to a collection of unearthed artifacts with science providing its own theories and opinions and has much of the time disincluded native peoples. There are snippets of appearances and western TV shows and movies resulting in inaccurate stereotypes of native life. Past native culture is far richer and more complex than is generally appreciated. 

“Native American remains and sacred objects were desecrated by early pioneers and settlers. But what remains buried throughout the state is still important to contemporary native society. Our native ancestral remains and items should be respected just as any other human remains are respected in any cemetery today.”

Eben offered some cultural context for the bill.

“In Native American culture, when an individual dies, there are several significant aspects to the transition from the physical world to the spiritual world. First, there are certain rites and traditions that take place at the time of death and during the death journey to the spirit world and at the place of burial.

“In addition, the relatives that are left behind partake in important ceremonies for the loss of our dead relative. When the dead is laid to its eternal resting place here on Earth, that is where they are to remain, to remain undisturbed. The same ancestors were buried in their traditional societies in a traditional way. These are considered cemeteries,” Eben said.

Existing tribal communities still carry on these traditions. The tribes are spiritually connected to these age-old customs and thereby, their ancient ancestors. Sometimes when people find prehistoric remains on their property, they are respectful and generous, and sometimes they’re not.

“Every year I have several Reno citizens call me, and some politely offer their cultural findings on their private property to the Reno/Sparks Indian Colony, and then I have others ask if we can purchase our ancestral items back. The latter part is offensive and disturbing,” Eben said. “Our culture is not for sale. For far too long Native American culture has been minimized, theorized, and placed on display. It seems that our culture is glorified, and then it becomes a curiosity.”

Assemblyman John Ellison represents a geographically vast area that includes Elko County, Eureka County, White Pine County, and part of Lincoln County. He asked about the inadvertent discovery of ancient remains.

“Say that you did have somebody with private property that didn’t know that there was a burial site there, and they started getting ready to do construction and find it, can those remains be moved or do they have to stay there?”

“There’s a couple things that can take place,” Eben said. “That’s why in my testimonial I talked about collaboration and working with the private owner, and deciding in cooperation with that private owner and the tribe that we make that decision together, what can be the most respectful way? 

“And usually I just would like to say that we would like to keep (the remains) in place.  And so that when we say in place, that can mean several things. It could be within the same area, just maybe put them down deeper, or maybe even the private landowner saying, ‘Okay, I can move my shed or I can move my construction over here.’ So that’s the point of us working collaboratively together, so that the tribe and the private landowner, they have that coordination and cooperation in trying to figure out together what to do.”

Other than hearing the bill, the committee took no action. Michon Eben said more could be done, beyond the current scope of AB103, to protect not only human remains but artifacts as well.

“Although AB103 is limited to Native American human remains, there is no protection for our cultural items, and this is something we’d like to change in the future,” said Eben. “We are requesting respectful communication with private landowners to identify any potential adverse impacts to our buried ancestors, and then to cooperatively decide the appropriate protection and disposition of them. 

“Our spiritual practices and relationship with our past relatives has the same meaningful connection that you all have to your ancestors. Our traditional burial practices are no different from any other people’s burial practices of the past or even today. All we are asking for is mutual respect for our dead relatives.”


Brian Bahouth is the editor of the Sierra Nevada Ally and  a career public media reporter. Support his work in the Ally.