WILSALL — On a sagebrush hillside in the Shields River Valley, close to the hem of the Crazy Mountains, the 12,600-year old remains of an infant boy were ceremoniously reburied on Saturday morning by American Indian tribal members.
The boy was between 1 year and 18 months old when he died of an unknown cause in an age of mammoth hunters.
“I hope that this is the final closure for you, too, as it is for us,” said Crow tribal elder Thomas Larson Medicine Horse Sr., addressing the Anzick family on whose property the child was discovered.
He spoke while standing at the rain-soaked, muddy gravesite, as did other tribal members before the grave was closed. Different tribal members stepped to the fore to perform rituals that included songs, bell ringing, burning of sweet grass and drumming.
The boy’s interment came decades after he was first discovered in 1968 by a tractor operator digging talus from a nearby hillside for a drain field. The boy had been dusted with red ochre and buried with more than 115 stone and antler tools — testimony to his family’s great sorrow. The artifacts can be viewed at the Montana Historical Society in Helena, but the boy is now back where he belongs, the American Indians said.
“The spirit is now back to the other side,” Medicine Horse said.
Earlier this year, scientists announced that DNA recovered from the boy showed that he was descended from Asians who were the first to cross the Bering Land Bridge and populate North America. His is the oldest genome ever recovered from a North American and proved that he was closely related to indigenous Americans.
“It’s a little bit unfortunate what took place and what happened,” Francis Auld, a member of the Salish-Kootenai Tribe who lives in Elmo, said during the ceremony. He later called the boy’s removal from the gravesite a federal crime.
“I can partially agree with the science if it would benefit the Indian nation,” he added, noting that American Indians have long suffered from the loss of their traditions, language and way of life.
But he ended his talk on a more positive note.
“We’re all in it together today,” he said. “Keep that in your hearts as we go forward here.”
Although the boy died young, during an age when animals like saber-toothed cats and camels roamed what would become Montana, he had much to teach modern humans.
Eske Willerslev, DNA researcher at the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, was the geneticist who traced the boy’s heritage. In attendance at the ceremony, he helped shovel dirt atop the sealed concrete box inside which a smaller, red-cloth-lined black box containing the boy’s remains were held.
“I think it ended exactly as it should,” Willerslev said afterward. “I’m really, really pleased so many different tribes came.
“I think and hope this will be the start of something good for science and the native people,” he added, noting that the Anzick study could be a model for how to proceed in the future — with compromises by scientists and natives.
Undoubtedly, he said he will face criticism from some in the scientific community over the reburial, since future technology may be able to reveal even more detail, he said. But for now, he was happy to have the stress over with.
Sarah Anzick, who was about 2 when the boy was found on her parent’s land and grew up to be a microbiologist, also expressed relief at having the child reburied.
“In the end, it’s a really nice, peaceful end for everyone,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights.”
Her father, Mel Anzick, received the call about the unearthing of the boy in 1968. The man told him then, “I think we could have something pretty interesting here.”
Little did he know.
Shane Doyle, a member of the Crow Tribe and Montana State University professor, was instrumental in negotiating the scientific study and reburial, acting as a liaison between the tribes and scientists.
“It was more beautiful than I could have imagined,” he said. “And not just the tribes, the non-Indians and everyone got to participate, which made it feel like it brought all of us together.
“Now it’s time to move forward,” he added. “There are other ancient ones that need to be reburied like Kennewick Man and we need to look at modern DNA.
“From a tribal point of view, this is a big part of reclaiming our history, reclaiming our dignity for our kids.”
The boy’s remains were returned to a place as close as possible to the original burial site, not far from Flathead Creek on the side of a prominent rocky hill that overlooks the valley. The air was scented with the smell of sage and sweet grass burned in honor of the boy. Birds trilled in the deep grass as the occasional drone of a passing automobile on the nearby highway intruded into the otherwise pastoral scene.
A huge rainbow greeted visitors traveling to the valley from the east, as if signaling the importance of the ceremony to come. The bruised sky frequently rained on the group gathered under umbrellas, blankets and rain jackets. Two film crews, about 30 American Indian tribal representatives from Montana and Washington, as well as local and national members of the press attended the reburial ceremony.
Before the discovery of the Anzick site, there were few clues to early human occupation in Montana. One was the 1959 discovery by Otho Mack of three broken Clovis-era obsidian projectile points unearthed while digging footings for the Gardiner post office. The wealth of the Anzick site has taught researchers so much more. Yet, the unearthing of the boy is still a difficult chapter in American history.
“These are our ancestors’ remains, they are not artifacts,” said Armand Minthorn of the Umatilla Tribe from Pendleton, Ore. “I hope that the people who come after us remember this, as well.”
Minthorn presented Sarah Anzick with a wool blanket, a gift from all of the tribes. She wrapped herself up in the heavy shroud and said, “I feel a huge unity today. This really means a lot, more than words can express.”