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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


August 23, 2003 - Issue 94


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Navajos Regain Possession of Ceremonial Buffalo Shields

by Dennis Romboy - Deseret Morning News
credits: Buffalo hide shield was probably made between 1420 and 1640. It was found in shelter in 1926. (photo by Gary Mckellar, Deseret Morning News)

Buffalo hide shield was probably made between 1420 and 1640. It was found in shelter in 1926. (photo by Gary Mckellar, Deseret Morning News)Three ancient buffalo hide shields used by Navajo medicine men in traditional religious ceremonies are back in the tribe's possession.

The 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.

"Indeed, 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.

Artifacts 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.

Because 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.

Six 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.

After 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 said.

The 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 were hidden.

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.

During 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.

Window Rock, AZ Map

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