WASHINGTON—The skeletal remains of six members of the Nisqually tribe are stored in wooden boxes in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. No one knows their names. No one knows the stories of their lives.
But they're going home soon.
"It is time to put them to final rest," said Carmen Kalama, the vice chairman of the 650-member tribe.
Some of the remains were donated to the Smithsonian 152 years ago after a naturalist working with the Pacific Railroad surveys found them near Fort Steilacoom, the first U.S. fort north of the Columbia River. Another set of remains was originally misidentified as those of Chief Leschi, a Nisqually chief who was hanged outside Fort Steilacoom in 1858, accused of murdering a soldier during a period of tension between the tribe and settlers.
The documents that have accompanied the remains through the years provide only sketchy information. Documents that may have shed more light were lost in a fire in 1865.
Since the passage of a federal law in 1989, the Smithsonian has "repatriated" or offered to return nearly one-third of the 18,000 sets of skeletal remains of Native Americans it has in its care. The process isn't simple, sometimes requiring months of research to ensure that the remains are returned to the appropriate tribe.
"There is a lot of detective work involved," said William Billeck, who manages the museum's repatriation office.
Most of the forensic work is old school. The age of the remains can be determined by skeletal changes such as bones fusing together or the growth of teeth. Sex can be determined by inspecting the pelvis or assessing the "robustness" of the skeleton.
Newer techniques such as DNA and radio-carbon dating aren't used.
"We don't do any destructive testing," Billeck said.
Three sets of the Nisqually remains are those of children, two are teenagers and the other was 25 to 35 years old. Three have been identified as female. The sexes of the three children are unclear.
While it would be unthinkable now, the remains were donated to the Smithsonian at a time when naturalists were exploring the West, and the bodies of Native Americans, along with thousands of other items, were collected and cataloged. The Smithsonian was one of the few museums in the Untied States at the time.
"Part of a naturalist's interest in the world involves collecting things," Billeck said. "There was a lot of interest in the differences among people, the differences among tribes."
Much of the hunt to link the remains to specific tribes involves pursuing paper trails of entries in old ledger books or letters from those who donated the remains.
George Suckley, a relatively well-known naturalist and biologist who worked with the Pacific Railroad surveys, sent three sets of the Nisqually remains to the Smithsonian in 1855, Billeck said. The surveys, which the Army's topographic bureau conducted, helped determine the route of the first transcontinental railroad.
An entry in a ledger book said the remains were found near Fort Steilacoom and that they were "flatheads," a cranial modification that was fairly common among Northwest tribes, Billeck said.
"We couldn't find any letters from Suckley," he said.
Suckley sent another set of remains that also was found near Fort Steilacoom in 1860.
Edward Giddings, a surveyor who also worked on the railroad surveys, donated the fifth set of Nisqually remains to the Smithsonian in 1869. According to an entry in a ledger book, they were the remains of Chief Leschi. That entry was discredited when a close examination showed they were the remains of a 13- to 16-year-old girl.
A man named Frank Golson turned over the final set of remains to the Smithsonian in 1907. Golson indicated that they were found on an island in the Nisqually River. Billeck didn't want to be more specific, to protect the island from modern-day grave robbers.
"We have to be careful how much information we give out," he said.
The remains will be returned to the Nisqually tribe later this year. The Smithsonian also will return a funerary object—a spoon made from a horn—that was donated in 1921 after it was found near Sylvano, Wash.
The Smithsonian stores the remains in wooden boxes in rows of cabinets in a large room. Only employees are allowed into the room. Others who wish to view the remains need the tribe's permission.
A private room in which the remains are handed over to the tribes also has been set aside.
"These things are handled with care and concern," Billeck said.