More than 200 walk American Indian remains to tribal cemetery

Ashley Miller/Staff Photographer From left, Bober Cliff, George Martin, Dennis Banks, Ryan Sprague and Harold Gould begin the 4.6 mile long procession outside the Special Education building to guide the remains of 144 Saginaw Chippewa tribal ancestors and associated funerary objects to their final resting place at the Nibokaan Ancestral Cemetery Thursday morning.

Sonya Atalay sang softly to her relatives on a cold Thursday morning.

The Indiana resident punctuated each note with a thrust of her hide-covered rattle into the air, so they could hear her song and see her heart.

“I try to speak to them when I am carrying the boxes (of American Indian remains) in our language,” Atalay said, “so they can hear something they recognize.”

Atalay, an archaeology professor at Indiana University, marched alongside more than 200 walkers Thursday for the “Walk Them Home” ceremony, a part of Native American Heritage Month.

The ceremony was a 4.6-mile walk to transfer 150 American Indian remains from Central Michigan University to the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe’s Nibokaan Ancestral Cemetery on Tomah Road.

The decision to return the ancestors was made because of the national Native American Graves Protection Repatriation Act, a federal law adopted in 1990.

NAGPRA provides a process for museums and federal agencies to return certain American Indian cultural items to lineal descendants, including human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony.

Atalay, who is on the NAGPRA review committee, said it was wonderful the ancestors were coming home.

The walk was cold, but participation was not affected.

“These grandparents are being returned in a special compassionate way,” said Punkin Shanananaquet, a Hopkins resident.

Shanananaquet said it is important for younger generations to understand the returning process and how it is relevant to their lives.

Her husband, Dave, stepped off from the crowd and performed tribal songs as the crowd passed by.

“I just came here to give them encouragement, that is the reason why I am here,” Dave Shanananaquet said.

Throughout the crowd, babies were pushed in strollers, the elderly walked with the assistance of canes and women linked arms as the procession took place.

Mount Pleasant resident Samantha Gose was one of the people who walked because of her interest and pride in knowing about the people she was bringing back home.

“I am glad that they decided to give them back,” Gose said. “I felt proud to be doing something to help.”