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Native American ceremony blesses graves at Fort Meigs

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From left, Conception Flores, Robert Tallbird, and Joyce Mahaney of the American Intertribal Association conduct a ritual purification of Native American burial sites that were discovered at Fort Meigs.

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With a wave of eagle and hawks' feathers over an abalone shell full of burning sage, the spirits of long-dead Native Americans were ritually sent to their final rest yesterday at Fort Meigs State Memorial in Perrysburg.

As officials from the Ohio Historical Society watched from a respectful distance, four representatives of the Toledo-based American Intertribal Association spoke words of Ojibway and Cheyenne prayers as they purified several spots inside the reconstructed fort - places where archaeologists say Native American bodies were interred between 1450 and 1600.

“If a body is dug up or disturbed, purification has to be done,” explained Joyce Mahaney, head of the Native American organization. “Even if they're thousands of years old, these are our relatives. `All my relatives' is how we end our prayers. These are our mishomis and nocamis - our grandfathers and grandmothers.”

The memorial rite was a beginning as well as an end, said James Strider, division chief at the Columbus-based historical society. Since a $6.7 million project to build a new visitors' center, replace the aging walls of the reconstructed fort, and other repairs began last year, workers have unearthed several prehistoric Indian group burial sites, as well as an early settlers' cemetery. Some of the remains were taken to society headquarters for analysis.

The Blade reported on the discovery of the remains and their quiet removal in April. Upon learning of the developments from the newspaper, the Intertribal Association called the actions “desecrations,” and had its attorney contact the historical society.

His timing was good. As of February, the society hired Rachel Tooker as its new deputy executive director. She came from a similar society in Minnesota, where she had set up a Native American Advisory Council to deal with residents of the state's 11 Ojibway and Dakota reservations.

Ms. Tooker is familiar with Native American beliefs, and with federal law that dictates how public organizations deal with discoveries of Indian burial sites and remains. The Ohio historical center she helps oversee has a collection of 6,700 Indian remains - ranging in size from single bones to entire bodies - and an ongoing program to identify their tribal affiliations and dispose of them properly.

“But mostly, for now, we're trying to improve our communications with groups like [the Intertribal Association],” she said. “When a burial site is found, we need to know who to call. We're trying to be more open. We expect to be doing a lot of talking to a lot of groups in the next few months.”

Since April, three more ancient “bundle burial” sites were found at Fort Meigs, one of them as recently as last week. None has been excavated, Ms. Tooker said. Construction was halted and building plans altered to avoid further disturbance at the graves, she said.

The Intertribal rite yesterday was a peace offering of sorts, and hopefully the start of a better, more thoughtful relationship in the future, said Robert Tallbird, a member of the Intertribal Association.

“We have good feelings about what happened here,” added Mrs. Mahaney. “It's a peaceful place. I think the spirits will be at rest now. I have good feelings about the direction we are taking now.”

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