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2,000-year-old bison bone site mired in controversy

2,000-year-old bison bone site mired in controversy

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SARPY CREEK -- About the time Christ was born and Roman legions marched on much of the known world, hunters honed by millennia of experience trapped a snorting, terrified herd of bison in a narrow drainage near what is now Hardin.

As they systematically killed and processed hundreds of animals, boiling and breaking the bones to retrieve the marrow, these prehistoric people had no notion of the archaeological and political fracas that would arise 2,000 years later.

The enormous bone bed they left behind, salted with hundreds of projectile points that may have been used in the kill, is now part of the Crow Reservation. And it is in the path of a coal mine expansion that will consume the site as well as all the ancient campsites and processing areas around it.

In advance of Westmoreland Resources’ expansion of its Absaloka Mine south onto the reservation, and in accordance with federal law, an archaeological contractor spent two years working the site on the west side of the Little Wolf Mountains in the Sarpy Creek drainage area.

Enough bison fragments were removed to nearly fill a semitrailer. A pile of bones the archaeologists considered “redundant” material, unlikely to add significant information to the samples already collected, remains near the scar left by the excavation. Early estimates said 30,000 pounds of bone and 13,000 pounds of fire-cracked rock lay in the bone bed.


This summer, as word of the bone bed and its removal spread, buffalo chips began to hit the fan. While government officials and archaeologists defend the work as both legal and necessary, charges are flying around the reservation that the work was done poorly and without the knowledge of the tribal cultural committee or tribal elders.

But federal agencies and the contracting company that did the archaeological study, GCM Services Inc. of Butte, said they have been blindsided by the controversy and stand by the quality of the work.

There is a political element as well. Tribal elections are set for Nov. 3. The contest for chairman is between incumbent Cedric Black Eagle and tribal Vice Secretary Darrin Old Coyote. Old Coyote garnered the most votes in the primary election earlier this month. Foes of the vice secretary link him to Dale Old Horn, a former tribal historic preservation officer (THPO), whom they say unilaterally agreed to a mitigation plan that resulted in the destruction of the bone bed.

It’s a complex story, not easily unraveled.

Added to the mix Burton Pretty On Top, cultural director for the Crow Tribe, who said agents of the Department of Interior Inspector General’s Office arrived on the reservation Tuesday to ask questions about THPO’s finances. The Gazette was unable to learn anything official about why agents were there. Old Horn said that he was interviewed at his home Tuesday by agents of the FBI and Inspector General’s office. He said they were accusatory and didn’t want to hear his explanations.

“I’ve been told by the legal department that Cedric Black Eagle had targeted me,” he said. “I surmise that it was for political reasons.”

Old Horn staunchly defends his tenure as THPO and said everything was done legally.

“It was all done professionally, carefully,” Old Horn said, responding to critics of the bone-bed excavation. “I recommended the only thing that could be done. The tribe had already approved the mine lease. The mine was a go. The only thing we could do was mitigate or minimize the damage.”

He said he agreed to a plan that included removing and storing the bones so that they can be reburied in the same spot when mining reclamation is done years from now.

Pretty On Top and Hubert Two Leggins, the THPO officer who replaced Old Horn, however, contend that Old Horn failed to follow protocol by informing the committee, the elders and the tribal vice secretary before signing the agreement that led to the removal of the bone bed.

“Dale gave permission totally on his own without telling anyone,” Pretty On Top said. “All I’m saying it is that it should never have been done.”

The site was sacred, he said. Rituals had been performed.

“It’s disgusting what happened here,” Pretty On Top said. “It’s sacred land here. They had ceremony here. It’s like someone going in and destroying St. Peter’s Basilica.”

Pretty On Top said that if the bone bed had not been destroyed, it could have been a major tourist attraction for the tribe.

“This could have been equal to the Black Hills,” he said.

Old Horn said he would have preferred that the bone bed not be disturbed, but saving a pillar of land within a deep strip mine rarely turns out well, he said. Some archaeologists who have worked in mine settings agree. The problem is that areas left standing in the middle of a mine are often damaged by heavy equipment used in mining and they generally collapse without the support of the surrounding landscape.

Once they learned about the site, Pretty On Top and Two Leggins contacted Judson Finley, an archaeologist who teaches at Utah State University. Finley said he was appalled at what he saw.

“Technically, it’s true, they did it by the book,” he said. “But it was a faulty process at best."

Federal law requires public input and consultation at every phase of the process to determine whether a site is significant and how it would be impacted by mining, Finley said. At every stage, reports have to be reviewed and the TPHO given a chance to comment. The plan must present the best way to avoid or mitigate damage if the site is to be mined, he said.

Because of the age of the bones, they cannot specifically be connected with any of the historic tribes in the region now, Finley said. All of the Northern Plains Tribes should have been notified and consulted, he said.

“There was never any public involvement,” he said. “Decisions were made exclusively by Old Horn."

But Blake Androff, spokesman for the Department of Interior, responded that consultations had been in progress since 2005, four years before excavation began as part of the mine permitting process. Department of Interior agencies, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Office of Surface Mining signed off on the 2008 memorandum of agreement with Old Horn and Westmoreland Resources.

“No agency or the tribe asked for further public involvement,” he said.

Excavations in 2009 and 2010 were carried out in accordance with the Data Recovery Plan in the memorandum, he said. Crow cultural monitors were present at all excavations, Androff said. THPO representatives included Denelle Old Horn and Martin Old Horn, a report on the excavations said.

Finley, who did not participate in the archaeological work at the Sarpy Creek Bison Kill Site, was emphatic in his criticism of the dig itself. He charged that instead of consulting with tribal members, a decision on excavation was made based on a 2 percent sampling.

“A statistically valuable sample is at least 30 percent,” he said. “But with a 1 or 2 percent sampling, they now mount a blade on a backhoe and excavate in 2-meter squares in one level.”

Finley said that a bone bed of such importance should not have been approached with a backhoe, but with hand tools, and that soils should not have been screened with a power screener, but with finer-gauge screens.

He contends that the Data Recovery Plan was faulty and decisions about excavation were made to save time and money. Excavating with a backhoe and power screen saved Westmoreland millions of dollars and a lot of time, he said. Finley said it should have been excavated painstakingly over a period of years.

Other archaeologists not connected to the controversy said that it is not uncommon to use backhoes because of the large size of bone beds and the practicalities of time and expense.

Thomas G. Durham, vice president of planning and engineering for Westmoreland, said the company cut no corners with the archaeological work.

“As best we know we have complied with all the requirements on this site and many other sites,” he said. “We review and keep reviewing to make sure that data is collected and protected. If we hadn’t done the work, we wouldn’t have gotten a permit to mine.”

He said that once sites are identified and the tribe and regulatory agencies decide what needs further study, the company contracts with an archaeologist to do the work.

“We do not influence his decision,” Durham said. “He works from a plan that everyone agrees on. Our role is paying the expenses.”

He said Westmoreland has a good working relationship with the tribe.

“We do not want to get into the middle of tribal politics,” he said.

Dave Ferguson, co-owner of GCM services, which did the archaeology work for Westmoreland at the Sarpy site, said the Crow Tribe was aware of the bone bed and agreed on a plan for mitigation that launched two seasons of meticulous field work. All of the entities involved -- the tribe, its THPO (Old Horn at the time), the Office of Surface Mining and BIA got together and formed a plan of action, he said. As the project was winding down, Finley came in and started berating them, he said.

Ferguson described the Sarpy site as “phenomenal,” a word Finley would have approved. But just how significant it is in the grand scheme of archaeology is another matter. One neutral archaeologist said he knew of 25 other Pelican Lake bone beds in Montana and Wyoming alone.

"Pelican Lake" refers to a type of corner-notched projectile point that looks like a Christmas tree that was common in the Northern Plains about 2,000 years ago.

But Finley said the bed was “hugely, hugely significant.”

“These types of sites don’t get excavated very often,” he said. “They are so labor-intensive. Many in Montana were destroyed in the early 1900s and ground up for fertilizer.”

The Sarpy site is unique, Finley said, because it appears that it had been ritually closed by the hunters. After the bones were gathered, the hunters apparently had put offerings of projectile points on top of them and then buried the whole pile with some type of ceremony, he said.

“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” he said.

Ferguson said that it is doubtful that the bones stayed where they were discarded by ancient butchers. Two thousand years of erosion, plus scavengers and burrowing animals likely played some role in distribution of the bison bones, he said.

The unusual thing about the Sarpy bone bed, one archaeologist said, is that the bone was so thoroughly processed. Most of the bone was in fragments of several inches or less. Another anomaly is that the site contained almost no skull bones.

Ferguson said the bones retrieved are being analyzed now to derive all information possible. A report may take two years or more to prepare because of the amount of material that needs to be processed.

Radiocarbon dating of bones and charcoal will help determine whether the bones were from one major event or of a few events during a “fairly narrow time frame,” he explained. Analysis so far indicates that more than 2,000 bison were processed at the site. They could all have been killed at once or 100 or so at a time over a period of years, he said. The archaeology team collected left tibia bones from the site as a way to count the animals.

More than 1,000 Pelican Lake atlatl darts that were attached to a hunter’s throwing stick were collected from the site, he said. No arrowhead points were found. Although skulls were noticeably absent, researchers hope to find enough mandibles to help determine what time of year the bison were killed. The season can be determined by tooth eruption in the younger animals, Fergus said.

Initial analysis indicates that a high percentage were young animals.

“The presence of newborn calf bone suggests the event took place in the spring,” a report from GCM said.

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