ancient buffalo hide shields used by Navajo medicine men in traditional
religious ceremonies are back in the tribe's possession.
National Park Service turned over the artifacts the oldest
leather shields known from North America to Navajo officials
last Thursday, ending a four-year long ownership dispute. The tribe's
headquarters are in Window Rock, Ariz.
a number of claims were made and the Navajo Nation claim prevailed,"
said Al Hendricks, Capitol Reef National Park superintendent. The
shields were on display there for 46 years.
hunter Ephraim P. Pectol discovered the decorated shields in a shallow
rock shelter below Boulder Mountain in south-central Utah in 1926.
The three large buffalo hides were carefully padded with shredded
juniper bark and covered with a layer of dirt. Carbon dating placed
their construction between 1420 and 1640, likely toward the end
of that range.
the shields were found on federal land, they were placed at nearby
Capitol Reef in 1953. They remained on display at the visitors center
there until 1999 when the Navajo tribe claimed them, citing the
Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
tribes, including Utes from Uintah County and Colorado and Kaibab
Paiutes from Fredonia, Ariz., filed requests for the shields. Also,
some descendants of the man who found them contested the valuable
antiquities leaving Utah. The artifacts were stored in a government
repository in Tucson, Ariz., until the ownership question was resolved.
consultation with anthropologists and archaeologists over two years,
the Park Service determined the shields belonged to the Navajos.
"The strongest claim was made by the Navajo Nation," Hendricks
decision was based largely on oral tradition, specifically the recollection
of an elderly Navajo medicine man thought to be the last of those
trained in ancient rituals using the shields. The healer told officials
his grandfather was the last man to have the shields before they
The three shields were created centuries ago for an ancient protection
ceremony that included songs and prayers. They were handed down
from generation to generation.
a U.S. Army roundup of the Navajo for interment in a New Mexico
prison camp in the 1860s, the two medicine men responsible for the
shields fled to Utah from Arizona. One of them stashed them in the
mountains of what is now Wayne County. He died before he could retrieve
them or tell anyone how to find them.