Louie Pitt: “The human remains themselves, have a say in this.”

In this excerpt, Louie Pitt relates his experience in repatriation.

Bio: Louie Pitt works for the Warm Springs tribe in Governmental Relations. Louie Pitt works to continue traditional culture education opportunities, and advocates for treaty rights and protection of natural resources. He is the brother of artist Lillian Pitt.


Non Indians kind of have a break with their dead. We don’t. We’re still responsible for our dead and to take care of them when they are in the ground. And those places that house those folks and again, a real opposite of America. When we die it’s–we die, we want to go the next place in one whole piece. My mother in law, ex mother in law, she said ‘oh I don’t mind my body being donated to science’ you know one part go here, one part go there. Another part to another. Tribal people, if you believe, is that we believe we have to be put away whole. So we arrive. What my mom called the place ‘where the light shines forever’. When we arrive there that we’re whole. So anyway, that’s it, well. Then there was even a discussion of what role cement…this was repatriation, bringing our people home. From the mid eighteen hundreds the United States of America had this continued — before another leader in Europe thought of it–was trying to prove the supremacy of the non Indian for knowledge in the cranium. And all these people go ‘Louie, what are you talking about here?’ You can’t make this stuff up. So when they had war with Indian people, once they killed a chief they would take his head and send it to labs on the east coast to then they’d measure and all that, and compare it, trying to prove their supremacy or prove something, I’m not sure. So that was really a curse to us and made our people fight harder, because that person could not arrive into the life, the hereafter, without a head. And so with all these human remains that were spread around the United States, we were finally able to get what’s called a NAGPRA law. It’s more of a ethical and moral law than it is a scientific law, to me anyway. [NAGPRA] that would bring those folks home. I had the privilege and honor of working with the first major repatriations on the Columbia River called Memaloose. Memaloose is ‘a place of the dead’ in Wasco language. And anyway that was very scary because these are our relatives, these are the guys that my dad was talking about that were in the ground and some of them may be my folks and oh gosh, this is serious stuff. So when things get serious in Indian country, what do you do? You call in the elders. So we notified all of the people that we thought were related to the Memaloose people. Most of them were my relatives on my dad’s side and then the Wasco folks on the Oregon side.

That project really stalled and we couldn’t figure out why. And it dawned on me one night that we’re not getting any younger and one thing we didn’t estimate the strength of was what about the spirit of those human remains themselves. Could they not contact and get into people’s dreams and hearts and souls and prayers? And so there was an airplane–one of the Corp of Engineers airplanes–waiting, so we mustered some sort of authority, how did it work, well we’ll get into trouble with this, said a person. By what authority? By authority of those elders. You mean the human remains themselves. Yes, they have a say in this. And everything worked out perfect too. Those human remains came in like three thirty in the morning. There was a delegation to meet them. There were policemen that just happened to be there from the tribes. They were escorted and delivered to their site, safely. We had policemen there waiting for them, a new shift. And another policeman that was going to watch them through the night, that I trusted. And it was amazing. And the next day we put them back into their final resting place, in a place called Wishram cemetery. Again I went and cried for about twenty minutes, because hey, thank you Creator. This is why I’m here. This is my time and my place.

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