By Montgomery Brower Conan Putnam
September 04, 1989 12:00 PM

Four miles outside Salina, Kans., a weather-beaten sign beckons tourists to the Price brothers’ Indian Burial Pits. The screen door on the dilapidated building carries a notice: HONK FOR GUIDE. Out back, beyond the displays of Wild West gewgaws and dusty glass cases filled with cheap souvenirs, lies the final resting place of an ancient band of Pawnees. Each year thousands of visitors pay $3.50 apiece to view the honey-colored piles of bones dug up by an amateur archaeologist in 1936. This is by no means a roadside cathedral, but proprietor Howard Price, 85, bristles at any suggestion that his business isn’t respectful of the dead. “We took care of the bones,” he says. “Every year we varnished them so they wouldn’t deteriorate.” To Price, that may be caring, but to Walter Echo-Hawk and the tribes he represents, such treatment is a ghoulish outrage.

Echo-Hawk is determined to have his forebears left in peace. “My ancestors were human beings who were tenderly buried by their relatives in accordance with tribal custom and religious belief,” he says. “They were not donated to science as data, specimens or trophies.” In an effort to correct the abuses of the past, Echo-Hawk, 41, senior staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund of Boulder, Colo., is busy hammering out treaties and lobbying museum curators, anthropologists, archaeologists and government representatives for the return of the bones of as many as 600,000 Native Americans to their tribal descendants. It is not easy work, in large part because Indian burial sites are often regarded more as historical curiosities than as holy ground. As Echo-Hawk puts it, “If you desecrate a white grave, you wind up sitting in prison. But desecrate an Indian grave, and you get a Ph.D. The time has come for people to decide: Are we Indians part of this country’s living culture, or are we just here to supply museums with dead bodies?”

Increasingly, scholars are lining up behind Echo-Hawk. Anthropologists at Stanford University recently agreed to return the remains of 550 Indians to northern California’s Ohlone tribe for reburial, and the University of Minnesota decided to surrender the bones of about 1,000 Native Americans to the state Indian Affairs Council. Earlier this month remains that had been at the University of South Dakota were reburied at Wounded Knee, S.D., site of the infamous 1890 massacre of an estimated 200 Sioux men, women and children by soldiers of the U.S. 7th Cavalry. Under a recent agreement brokered by Echo-Hawk between the Pawnees, the state of Kansas and the Price brothers, the burial pits at Salina will be covered over late this year. And no fewer than five bills dealing with the issue of Indian remains are now pending in Congress.

There are those, however, who decry demands for the return of bones and grave relics. James Hanson, director of the Nebraska State Historical Society, calls them “bald-faced censorship.” Under a Nebraska law passed in May, all state museums, including the historical society, must return any Indian remains and burial offerings—clothing, weapons, pottery and the like—to the tribes of origin upon request. “If you remove something from the museum because it offends someone’s feelings, it’s no different than removing books from the library,” says Hanson. “There is no proof that any skeleton we have is related to any one of the Native Americans who wants them back. The burial artifacts are worth almost a million dollars, and we have no assurance under the law they would be reburied with the remains, which leads us to wonder what these people were after in the first place.”

Kansas State Archaeologist Tom Witty was at first appalled by Pawnee demands that the Salina burial pits be closed and covered. “I thought we’d never be able to dig again and we’d have to rebury everything we’ve got,” he recalls. “My feeling now is I don’t think as scientists we’re entitled to dig up whatever we want and study it.” In large part, Witty attributes his change of heart to Echo-Hawk, who proved less confrontational than a few tribal militants. “With him,” says Witty, “there was a real spirit of compromise and understanding.” Echo-Hawk prefers persuasion to litigation, and his approach carried the day for the Indians in their bitter struggle for passage of the Nebraska reburial statute. “He comes across as honest, gentle and sincere, and he’ll always walk the last mile,” says State Sen. Ernie Chambers. “But the minute somebody crosses him, he’ll show the steel inside the velvet glove.”

Echo-Hawk was born on a Pawnee reservation in Oklahoma, the son of a career Air Force officer. He entered the law because “I knew the realities of life on reservations. Indian people saw their culture vanishing, and I thought someone should speak up for them.” He and his wife, Pauline, 41, a full-blooded Yakima who grew up on a reservation in Washington State, try to keep their children, Amy, 17, Walter Jr., 14, and Anthony, 6, aware of their heritage by attending Native American social gatherings and powwows. The family’s barnlike four-bedroom house in Lyons, Colo., looks out on the foothills of Rocky Mountain National Park. “Indian culture is a very powerful, special influence in their lives, and it shows,” says family friend Laura Lavi, an attorney for the Muckleshoot tribe.

Two weeks ago Echo-Hawk may have won his most important concession yet when the Smithsonian Institution, which houses some 18,500 skeletal remains, agreed in principle to ease its requirement that tribal members prove direct ancestry before remains will be released by the museum. “We don’t expect everyone to share our beliefs,” says Echo-Hawk, “but it doesn’t take the wisdom of Solomon to understand that our dead deserve to rest in peace. Without the vitality of our cultural and religious beliefs, the Indian is just a red-skinned white man.”

—Montgomery Brower, Conan Putnam in Chicago