When he was in the second grade in 1971, Russ Nelson remembers his mother uncovering a set of human remains while trying to build a duck pond at their home near Oak Harbor.
He remembers seeing a distinctive jawbone, skull, an animal jawbone and a few loose teeth. A year later, the family moved to Bellingham and Nelson forgot about the bones.
Nearly 50 years later – in August of this year – Nelson was cleaning out his recently deceased mother’s belongings. He had transferred some of her things from storage to his house about a decade prior. As he was going through the brown boxes, he came across one labeled ‘archaeology,’ and inside were the two jawbones, a skull and loose teeth.
“I remember the story of them, but I don’t remember them sticking around,” Nelson said. “I had assumed she had dealt with those 45 years ago.”
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Nelson said he knew the bones were the same from his childhood because of the way they were broken. Nelson discovered the bones over a weekend and took the time to drive back to his Oak Harbor home. He also stopped at the local library to research tribal history in the area so he could make a thorough report to police, he said.
“The officer asked me what I wanted to do with the bones and I said I wanted to give them back to where they belong,” Nelson said.
An examination of the bones determined two out of the three sets were Native American, and the other non-Native, said Dr. Guy Tasa, the state physical anthropologist.
Nelson said the bones were taken over by Bellingham Police, and then turned over to the Whatcom County medical examiner. The non-human bones were disposed of, and the others were determined to be old and had no evidence of a crime, police said. They were then sent to the Washington State Physical Anthropologist in early September.
By law, Tasa is required to notify all Native American tribes within the area of interest. Tasa has roughly 48 hours to determine if the remains are Native or non-Native. Tasa will identify the remains through non-destructive testing, such as taking measurements, looking at tooth shape and other observations. He also tries to determine sex and age, he said.
If the bones are Native American, the tribes are notified and the remains will be repatriated based on tribal timelines, said Allyson Brooks, director of the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. If multiple tribes are interested, they will determine amongst themselves who will take the remains. There hasn’t ever been a tribal conflict regarding remains, officials said.
If the remains are determined to be non-Native and are not of historic significance they are buried in a communal plot at the Evergreen - Washelli Cemetery in Seattle, Tasa said.
For the remains that Nelson found, 12 tribes were contacted. Of the 12, the Puyallup, Stillaguamish and Swinomish tribes said they were interested in repatriating them. The tribes have yet to make a determination of who will take the remains.
Nelson said his mother was interested in Native American culture and archaeology and often helped out local archaeologists and went on a couple digs in Arizona when he was little. Nelson said when he first found the remains, he felt concern and some shame, especially since his mother held a deep respect for Native American culture and was knowledgeable about archaeology.
“My mother had a good heart and would not have done anything intentionally disrespectful, particularly with her love of the culture,” Nelson said. “That’s somebody’s people. …These are somebody’s people that need to go back to where these folks are. Whether or not I hold the same belief system, it’s very important to that culture and needs to be treated appropriately.”
Nelson said he wants other people to be aware of the processes when remains are discovered and hopes people would treat them with respect.
“Of course I’m not going to put them in a dumpster or drop them off somewhere else. I was going to do what I could to get them back to where they belong,” he said.