BRANDON, S.D. – South Dakota now has two active sites where human remains were unearthed, but mitigation at each site is very different.
Near Brandon, a small, but growing town on the eastern border of the state a skull was unearthed and determined to be nearly 1,000 years old, thus putting it into the hands of the local tribes.
The site, excavated for the construction of a new school, is just north of an area known for burial mounds, but nothing has ever been discovered this far north, local officials and contractors said.
The likely disposition of the skull and any other remains will be a ceremonial burial in a location designated for repatriation on the Flandreau Santee Sioux Reservation just north of the site, said Ray Red Wing, repatriation director for the tribe. Or preservation of the site could occur, said state director for the department of Archaeology, Jim Haug. They could call it a sacred cemetery and leave it green and protected, he continued.
Red Wing said representatives from different tribes will gather to decide the best solution, but it looks likely that reburial at Flandreau will be the final decision.
Members of the Upper Sioux and Lower Sioux communities in Minnesota, the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe, Santee Sioux Tribe, and the Yankton Sioux Tribe will decide the case.
The state archaeologists will work with the tribes to determine the best disposition of the remains, Haug said.
The Yankton Sioux Tribe went into litigation against the state of South Dakota and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the destruction of a burial site on the Yankton Reservation.
The difference is that at Brandon the site is on private land, not state, and a private contractor and developer immediately stopped construction and called authorities when the skull was discovered, Red Wing said.
Heavy equipment damaged the skull, but Renee Boen, archaeologist from the state archaeology laboratory said by determining the depth of the skull, its bone size and the fact that there was no indication of a coffin or other burial devices that the skull was in the vicinity of 1,000 years old, and an American Indian.
“I went down to see it and saw the skull in the dirt. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen anything like that. I just said wow,” Red Wing said.
He said returning the skulls that were found to the area was probably not an option because of the recent housing development boom. The only area protected is the Eminija Mounds a known burial site. If, however, that is the decision an archaeological survey of the entire area will be performed.
Haug said that like most cultures people settled along major rivers and waterways. The Brandon development is close to the Big Sioux River, where it is assumed that as development continues up and down the river more burial sites will be discovered.
Haug said his plan is to work out some agreement with the state and local municipalities that would include his department in the planning stages of any development in order to prevent this type of discovery which holds up work and possibly creates litigation.
State archaeologists provided developer Gene Johnson who owns the land with maps of known cultural sites in the area. As development continues it is almost certain that more human remains will be found.
The remains of three persons were found at the site. One skull contained a dark maroon stain from red ochre, which was a method of preparing bodies for burial in that time frame. Soil around the skull was also stained with the red ochre, archaeologists said.
Unlike the discovery at North Point along the Missouri River on the Yankton Sioux Reservation, construction ceased immediately and authorities were notified. Johnson, since he is the land owner has the right to decide the fate of the remains, but chose to include the tribes in that decision.
At North Point the state owned the land, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were charged with upholding the Native American Graves Protection and Restoration Act, which tribal officials said was not the case, and litigation was pursued by the tribe and the state.
Private land owners are exempt from the rules of NAGPRA. The state has not taken control of the remains, which if they did, NAGPRA would take effect.
At Brandon, the site was secured with tarps and fill dirt immediately after the discovery. Johnson phoned the county sheriff, who in turn notified the state authorities. The next day archaeologists combed the area around the discovery and discovered the three burial sites.
It appears the Brandon site will not be contentious like others have been. Red Wing said all parties are very cooperative and he believes the decision by the repatriation committee will be to rebury the remains at Flandreau.