Published April 7, 2016
WINDOW ROCK — On Wednesday, April 6, 2106, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion in favor of the Navajo Nation against the U.S. Department of the Interior concerning the removal of over 300 human remains from Canyon de Chelly.
The Ninth Circuit Court reversed the dismissal of the Navajo Nation’s case, ruling that the National Park Service’s letter to the Navajo Nation refusing to return the remains was “final agency action” and therefore the United States waived its sovereign immunity under the Administrative Procedure’s Act.
This case arises from Canyon de Chelly, a National Monument managed by the National Park Service, and located on the Navajo Nation.
Canyon de Chelly is sacred to the Navajo people. Without the consent of the Navajo Nation, over 300 human remains were removed from Canyon de Chelly and remain locked in a National Park Service facility in Tucson, Arizona, in defiance of the Nation’s request to return them for reburial.
The Navajo Nation has taken the position that it has the right of control over the remains because they were removed without its consent from tribal trust lands affirmed as reservation land under the Treaty of 1868 with the United States. Therefore, the National Park Service does not have “possession or control” as required to allow it to conduct a cultural affiliation determination under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
The case will now return to the U.S. District Court of Arizona, where the Navajo Nation will aggressively seek the immediate return of the remains to the sacred canyon and rebury them.