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Bones found on reservation could be 500 years old

Sep 14, 2017 By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

The Fremont County Coroner's Office and a team from the University of Wyoming spent all day Sunday recovering a set of skeletal remains found last week on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

Preliminary analysis showed the remains are hundreds of years old, Coroner Mark Stratmoen said, meaning they come from a time before settlers arrived in Wyoming.

"You're probably looking at, just roughly, 200-500 years old at least," he said.

Based on the age, he believes the bones likely belong to an American Indian, but even if they aren't native remains, their location on the reservation means Stratmoen's office must follow certain procedures outlined in an agreement with the Tribal Historic Preservation Office.

For example, Stratmoen said he would not release information about the location of the remains, which were found Sept. 7 by a utility company working on an excavation project.

"There still are ... people that, if they find out where either individual (bones) or burial grounds are, they go out and loot them trying to find artifacts," he said. "There is way too much of that stuff that gets stolen because there is still a black market for Native American artifacts."

He also is "forbidden by law" to release photos of the bones, though Stratmoen said he can't control private individuals who choose to post photographs on social media.

He noted that several photos of the remains were visible online this week.

"Those did not come from the coroner's office," he said, adding, "I think it's somewhat disrespectful to publish such things on social media. ... Who knows where they're going to end up?"

In the case of ancient native remains, Stratmoen said he considers the tribes of the Wind River reservation to be next-of-kin to the deceased. As such, he said, the tribes should be consulted before photos of their relative are distributed, even for educational purposes in a restricted setting.

UW's role

Through his agreement with the tribes, Stratmoen arranged for the skeletal remains to be transported to UW where they will be analyzed by experts in the anthropology department.

"In a month or so we'll get a report back (on) what they can determine ... as far as race, sex, all the demographics of the remains, approximately how old they are and that sort of thing," he said. "Sometimes they can tell (how the person died), even on old remains."

Once the report is completed, Stratmoen said the remains will be sent back to his office, and if they are indeed American Indian bones, he will turn them back over to the tribes for reburial.

If the deceased was not native, Stratmoen said different procedures will apply.

Excavation

Stratmoen said the utility company that uncovered the bones was required to report the finding.

The company has since resumed work, as Stratmoen said his office and the team from UW were able to excavate the site in one day.

"We recovered everything completely that was at that particular location," Stratmoen said.

The crew included two UW anthropologists as well as a handful of senior students, who gained valuable, hands-on experience in the field as a result of the find, he continued.

"The university is very appreciative of the opportunity," Stratmoen said. "And it benefits us because the recovery is done in an experienced way by professionals, and we get it done in a short period of time.

"If it was just our office (it) would take us a week minimum."

Speaking Tuesday with the Fremont County Commission, Stratmoen said his office's participation in the work costs less than an autopsy and will have almost no impact on his budget.

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