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Indian spiritual leaders say their tribes are sick - literally - over the display of their ancestors' skeletons and funerary objects in museums.

Tribal spiritual leaders teach that "until these ancestors and sacred objects are repatriated to the descendants, efforts by our tribal councils and governments to provide for our people are doomed," said Michael S. Haney, a Seminole from Oklahoma.He added that the spirits call to descendants to free them "from the jail of the vaults, paper sacks and plastic bags" in museums. Until then, he said high alcoholism and suicide rates, poor health and education and poverty will afflict the tribes.

Such arguments were the latest wrinkle in debates about whether to order the nation's museums to return the remains of Indians and funerary objects to their descendants.

Many artifacts were collected by 19th century Army scouts who raided Indian burial grounds in Utah and throughout the West to satisfy demand from museums and Army researchers. Many museums today worry about the cost of the bills proposed.

The House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee began hearings on three such bills Tuesday, while the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs has held similar hearings.

Arguments about the belief that the spiritual well-being of modern Native Americans is tied to the museum's housing of some ancestors had not been stressed heavily before, but were Tuesday.

Jack F. Thorpe, attorney for the Association on American Affairs, said his group talked with 100 spiritual leaders from tribes nationwide, and all agreed "these spirits cannot rest until the human remains and associated grave offerings are revived in a proper religious ceremony."

He added that many of them feel museums opposing repatriation are "holding the spirits of Indian ancestors hostage in the name of scientific research." He said Indians believe those ancestors cannot proceed on their spiritual path until they are reburied.

Arlouine Gay Kingman, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, said proposed bills mean "to us that the spirits of our ancestors can finally go free when their remains are laid to rest permanently."

She added that museums holding Indian remains "constitutes violation of the religious rights of dynamic, living societies of today . . .. In that light, it is an issue of blatant, ongoing human rights abuse, and it must be dealt with in that context."

Representatives of museums said many museums are working to return remains already, and they worry about costly provisions in bills aimed to force such action.

Raymond Thompson, representing the American Association of Museums, complained a bill by Committee Chairman Morris Udall, D-Ariz., would require all federal agencies and federally funded museums to list within two years all Indian remains and objects they hold, and notify affected tribes the next year.

Thompson said the cost of identifying remains and objects by modern tribe could be staggering, with some museums saying it would cost up to $1.2 million.

"Even if the resources were available for inventory, there is serious doubt as to whether there are currently enough physical anthropologists and other qualified scientists necessary to complete such a project within five years," he said.

The topic received wide attention in Congress when last year the Smithsonian Institution agreed to return Indian remains it possessed in return for Indian support of a new Native American museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C.