Army scouts in the 19th century searched throughout Utah and the West for Indian burial grounds to satiate the demand of Eastern museums for skulls, bones and funerary objects.
Today's Indians call that grave robbing, and they now support bills in Congress that could force the return of up to 2 million human remains from federally funded agencies and museums.But archaeologists are concerned that effort may compromise scientific research.
Opening rounds in that battle were fired at a Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs hearing this week - with some Indians pushing for quick, wholesale return of bones while scientists urged more careful case-by-case study over many years.
Native Americans already won a battle last year when Congress ordered the Smithsonian Institution to return Indian remains in exchange for Indian participation in creation of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.
Now, new bills have been introduced proposing similar action for other federally funded agencies and museums. In Utah, federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service contract with state universities and museums to store ancient remains.
"It has been estimated that between 100,000 to 2 million Native people have been dug up from their graves in the United States and are now held in the nation's universities, museums, state and federal agencies and tourist attractions," testified Walter Echo-Hawk, attorney for the Native American Rights Fund.
He added that only two federal agencies have inventories available of Indian remains they possess. "From National Park Service lands, about 3,500 natives have been dug up and are now being warehoused. And the Tennessee Valley Authority has dug up about 10,000 native dead from its lands."
Proposed bills would require other federal agencies and federally funded museums to prepare inventories by 1992 to identify tribal affiliation of bones or individual identities for possible return of remains.
But Thomas A. Livesay, speaking for the American Association of Museums, expressed concerns about the expense of such provisions.
"One (association) member institution reports that due to the size of their collections of ethnographic and archaeological materials, 60 collections researchers would have to be hired full time to meet the March 31, 1992 deadline.
"Another museum reports that to comply with the inventory and investigations provision of (one of the proposed bills), more than $1.2 million would be needed to complete the task."
Livesay said many museums are already meeting on their own with Native American groups to discuss methods to return some remains and how to allow needed research in a compassionate manner.
Still, such steps have not been enough to satisfy some Indian groups that want bones returned almost immediately for proper burial and do not necessarily want them identified by culture - which could require incineration of some remains to determine that.
Also, Norbert S. Hill Jr., executive director of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, said, "It is a sad thing that at many universities throughout this country, students have a considerably better chance of learning about Native Americans from skeletal remains than from Indian professors.
"It is a fact that the remains of Indian dead on many campuses outnumber the living and breathing Native American students."
Also, Suzan Harjo, president of the Native American advocate Morningstar Foundation, told the committee, "Exhibition of our dead relatives' skulls and destruction of their remains in federal and private places of learning . . . are part of that shameful past and all continue today."
She said that has left Native Americans in a "prolonged state of mourning." She added, "This legislation will not correct all our problems but it is more than a beginning."
The Senate Committee is expected to vote on the bills to return Indian remains sometime next month.