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Logan burial site's American Indian remains rise to 44

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The skeletal remains of at least 44 American Indians have been unearthed during construction of a new state office building in downtown Logan, and some people say West Virginia officials should have known they might be there.

News of the large number of remains, which were unearthed last year over a 10-month period, was first reported last week in Indian Country Today, a national weekly newspaper.

"I have never been involved in anything where that many remains had to be moved as a result of a construction project," G. Peter Jemison, a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, said in the article. "When we talked to the West Virginia state officials, we said, 'This is really not business as usual for us. It is not for us to help you do whatever you please with construction and, when you run into human remains, you keep working.'"

Jemison, of Victor, N.Y., represents the Seneca Nation on matters dealing with the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which established ways to process and rebury American Indian remains found on federally funded construction projects. He was asked to help the Eastern Shawnee find a final resting site for the remains at the Logan site -- initially thought to include only a few American Indians.

Work on the office building began in fall 2010. It was delayed for nearly two months after the adjacent Aracoma Hotel burned in November of that year, for fear that pile-driving work on the new building's foundation could collapse the fire-damaged hotel.

After construction resumed at the Logan site, workers found human bones on Jan. 31, 2011. West Virginia Department of Administration officials immediately halted work. The bones were examined by police, then were forwarded to the state Medical Examiner's Office, which in turn sent them to a forensic consultant at the Smithsonian Institution to determine their origin.

When the Smithsonian consultant reported that the bones likely belonged to prehistoric American Indians, the state Historic Preservation Office sent staff archaeologists to examine the construction site. After other funerary items and prehistoric artifacts were found, they decided to hire a consulting archaeology firm to monitor construction and preserve any skeletal remains for reburial.

Since the construction did not involve federal money or land, the state didn't have to follow Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act guidelines.

However, state law did require the convening of an ad hoc burial committee to establish construction permit conditions before proceeding with work in an area where human remains were found, according to Division of Culture and History spokeswoman Caryn Gresham.

The burial committee included representatives of tribes of "presumed lineal descent" of those buried at the Logan site, including the Eastern Shawnee of Oklahoma, the Absentee Shawnee Tribe, the Seneca Nation, the Seneca Cayuga Tribe and the Tonawanda Seneca Nation. It also included representatives from the West Virginia Archaeological Society and the Council for West Virginia Archaeology.

Jemsion, a member of the committee, said that when he first learned of the situation in Logan, he was told that "two or possibly three" sets of remains were involved. "After that, the more work that was done, the more additional remains were found."

He was surprised that West Virginia law did not require a pre-construction search of historic records and literature to determine if burials or archaeological features previously had been encountered near the building site.

"That was a little baffling to us," he said. "As we got to learn more about this project and about Logan, we learned that there was a great deal of evidence of [prehistoric] human occupation in that area.

"It turned out it was kind of a well-known fact that burials had been discovered all around the construction area," Jemison said, "making it hard to imagine there wouldn't be something there."

Had the Logan project been subject to federal historic preservation laws, a literature search would have been completed, along with a preliminary archaeological survey consisting of the examination of material found in a series of small, hand-shoveled test pits.

In 1979, during utility construction work near the current state office project, an American Indian burial was found, along with an assortment of artifacts. Radiocarbon testing dated that site back to the mid-1600s.

According to retired U.S. Army Corps of Engineers archaeologist Robert Maslowski, who represented the Council for West Virginia Archaeology on the burial committee, the 1979 site is officially recorded as Logan Village 46LG4. It is part of a proto-historic American Indian village that was vacated before Europeans settled in the region.

"Burials had been previously uncovered when the city dug trenches in the road for various repairs," Maslowski said. "The site should never have been considered for a state office, since it was known to have burials."

Jemison said American Indian representatives on the committee had difficulty finding a safe place to re-bury the remains within the state.

"We want to think we'll put them in a place where they won't be disturbed again, forever," he said, "but we were not offered a secure location for reburial."

The remains, he said, have been re-interred in the state of New York.

Maslowski said research has shown that the ancestral roots of the occupants of the Logan American Indian village are Siouan. Such federally recognized Siouan tribes as the Omaha, Osage and Tunica-Biloxi should have been part of the repatriation process, he said.

Department of Administration spokeswoman Diane Holley-Brown would not say if additional remains have been found in Logan since the 44 others were repatriated late last summer.

She said it's state policy not to discuss the number of bodies found at the site, "out of respect to Native Americans."

In fact, state officials would not confirm or deny that 44 sets of remains had been transferred to representatives of the Seneca Nation for reburial.

Jemison said he and other members of the ad hoc committee want the state to add an educational component to the new office building, so that people visiting it could "understand what was there before the office was built."

Holley-Brown said state officials are working with the contractor to develop such an addition.

The five-story, 54,000 square foot office building is scheduled for completion in October.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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