Steve Englert has finally ended a journey of white man's guilt that began 44 years ago, when, as a boy, he dug up an American Indian skeleton.
In May, after a long battle with Colorado College and negotiation with the Southern Ute Indian tribe, Englert returned to eternal rest the partially mummified, toothless skeleton that he discovered south of Colorado Springs while scouring the long-abandoned site of Bent's Picket Post Stockade, a small trade center established in 1829.
"It's haunting to know you took somebody out of their grave," 57-year-old Englert said. "It just bothered me all my life."
He fought the college since the mid-1990s for the release of the skeleton, but administrators resisted until he began talking to American Indian tribes and warned of legal action.
Last November, in accordance with the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, the private college filed the first of several notices in the Federal Register, providing an inventory of the remains of 39 American Indians in its possession. They were excavated as recently as the mid-1980s from sites around Colorado Springs and as far away as Utah and Arizona.
The law, signed in 1990 by former President George H. W. Bush, gave entities that receive federal funds until 1995 to inventory any remains, artifacts, funerary objects and sacred items for return to descendants or tribes.
The college now acknowledges it was in violation of the act, but legal counsel Loretta Martinez said compliance wasn't on the radar because administrators might have thought the law applied only to museums, or they were perhaps unaware of the law.
"For whatever reason, it only came to our attention in the legal office at the point which I came to the college" in 1999, Martinez said.
Last year, the college hired Denver-based Bernstein and Associates, which helps museums and colleges navigate the complex graves reparation law. Various Ute, Pueblo, Zuni, Hopi and other tribes -- about two dozen in all -- are consulting with each other and the college to recover the remains. The process is expected to be complete in coming months, said Jan Bernstein, president of Bernstein and Associates.
A double standard
In April of 1960, a young Englert investigated the banks of Turkey Creek near Pueblo. He had bragged to his father -- a charter member of the Historical Society of the Pikes Peak Region -- that he could find more than just half-buried arrowheads.
"I'm going to find me an Indian," he said.
Across the creek, he encountered a pelvic bone peeking out from a pile of stones.
"I found one! I found one!" he said, splashing up the creek to his father.
Scientists who excavated the grave soon verified it was the skeleton of an American Indian woman, who could well have lived when tribes and European fur trappers converged at the post. At the time, the boy was hailed as a hero for donating the bones to Colorado College. But as he grew older, he became ashamed that he violated the woman's resting place.
"If I could do it again, I would leave the lady under the rocks," Englert said. "I had no reason or right."
The graves reparation act reversed more than a century of United States laws that allowed American Indian artifacts and human remains to become the property of museums, governments and private individuals, said Walter Echo-Hawk of the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder.
Echo-Hawk, who worked to pass the federal law, said previously there was a double-standard: non-Indian graves were protected from being opened for science or sale, while those of cultures native to the land were not afforded the same sanctity.
"All races and all cultures around the world share certain sensibilities regarding the dead," he noted.
People or institutions that are in violation of the law can be fined up to $5,000, and an additional $1,000 for each day they fail to comply once a ruling is handed down. Colorado College was not formally charged with any violations. Paula Molloy, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service, which oversees NAGPRA in Washington, D.C., says that the Park Service is glad the college has voluntarily come forward.
"There's a lot of responsibility on museums to self-identify and to act in good faith," Molloy said.
Institutions, overall, have been slow to comply with the law, she added.
Over the last three-and-a-half years, roughly 600 colleges, museums and other institutions have filed notices in the Federal Register indicating plans to return native artifacts and remains. That's about the same number of notices filed in the eight years between 1992 and 1999.
At last count, institutions were seeking to return more than 27,800 human remains and hundreds of thousands of other items associated with graves excavations.
"The law hasn't saturated enough in some communities," said Neil Buck Cloud, who coordinates the return of remains to the Southern Ute Indian tribe in Ignacio, in the Four Corners region of Colorado. "Many places think they still own the bones."
In May, Englert, who now lives near La Junta, buried the remains of the woman he dug up as a boy after they were handed over by Colorado College. Under the law, a person like Englert, who has no tribal roots, can't claim Indian remains or objects for reburial. The Southern Utes, however, granted him permission.
"Mr. Englert was the one that dug them up," Cloud said. "He had a guilty conscience for doing it. I told him, 'You're the party that dug them up, so you're going to have to bury them.' You'll have to ask your forgiveness from the lady."
At the same time, the tribe allowed Englert to bury 11 other remains, including those of a woman and child, on a plot of land that Englert bought south of La Junta because the original graves were unidentified or unavailable.
The tribe is expected to recover other remains for re-burial.
Englert had initially hoped to return the remains of the woman to the trading post site where he initially found them, consulting at one point with the Department of Defense. However, the site had become a bombing range on Fort Carson and the military denied his request to return the remains to their original resting spot.
But the land he bought is an appropriate second choice, he said. The remorse he felt for more than four decades subsided after he buried the bones, he said.
"When I finished digging the graves, a roadrunner landed in a tree and cooed for a while," Englert said. "I never saw that before. So I knew I was doing right."