When news broke this week that a partial skull found along the Minnesota River could be 8,000 years old, Samantha Odegard and others in the Upper Sioux Community couldn't help but feel anger and frustration. The remains obviously belonged to one of their ancestors.
Odegard and others from the community, Pezihutazizi Oyate, first learned about the skull in a Facebook post by the Renville County Sheriff's Office. The post included a photo of the bone.
The post was disrespectful, she said, and the intrusive carbon-14 testing done to determine the bone's age was a violation of Native American culture.
"It should have been handled differently," Odegard said. "I know there's a lot of curiosity. But curiosity about Native Americans has been at the root of some immeasurable and horrific actions throughout history, whether through good intentions or bad."
The skull was turned over Thursday to the Upper Sioux Community. "Our relative will be cared for with respect and with reverence," she said.
The story began innocently enough. Two people found it in September while kayaking on the Minnesota River south of Sacred Heart, about 115 miles west of Minneapolis, according to the Facebook post.
The bone was sent to the Midwest Medical Examiner's Office, which determined that it was human, the sheriff's office said. It was then sent to the FBI, where a forensic anthropologist determined it had belonged to a young adult male. A depressed area in the skull was consistent with blunt force trauma, the sheriff's post said.
Although Renville County didn't have an active missing person case, Sheriff Scott Hable told the Washington Post that the skull might help solve a case in a neighboring county from a few years ago.
But it was the sheriff's Facebook post that broke the news that the carbon-14 analysis had estimated the skull to be almost 8,000 years old.
"The available science and technology are truly incredible, and we are fortunate to have the partners that we do to assist us in this investigation and to have come across this little piece of history," the sheriff's post concluded.
While the social media post generated headlines and excitement for those marveling that a bone thousands of years old was found in Minnesota, Dylan Goetsch, field investigator with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, was angry that a state law established to safeguard Native American remains wasn't followed.
Goetsch said that once law enforcement officials had determined that the skull was not related to a crime or a missing person case, his office along with the state archeologist and the tribal communities should have been notified and consulted about the find, long before it was posted on the Sheriff's Office Facebook page. The post, along with a photo of the skull, can be traumatic to contemporary Native Americans, he said.
"We're not a relic of history. We're still living people," he said. "This is one of our ancestors." But this also may be a teaching moment, he added. "I don't want this to happen again."
So Goetsch, along with Minnesota State Archaeologist Amanda Gronhovd, will send letters to the state's sheriffs and county attorneys reminding them of the law that provides a process to safeguard Native American remains.
"A lot of law enforcement folks are not aware of these laws," Gronhovd said. "Ninety-nine percent of the time when they find human remains, it's a crime scene."
When it was determined that the Renville County remains appeared to be thousands of years old, Gronhovd said, the sheriff told her that he left messages with the Minnesota Historical Society and the Upper Sioux Community. "I think he was trying to do the right thing," she said.
But Hable also posted the news on his Facebook page before talking to Gronhovd or members of the Native American community.
Decades ago, archaeologists would eagerly have performed tests and analysis on a bone that appeared to be centuries old, Gronhovd said. They don't do that anymore out of respect for Native Americans, she said.
For that reason, it's difficult to compare this recent find to the age of other bones found over the decades in Minnesota. And the carbon-14 analysis of the skull might not be accurate because the bone may have absorbed ancient carbon from the water or fish eaten by the man, Gronhovd said.
"If you took a fish out of a lake yesterday, the test might show it was significantly older than it actually is because of ancient carbon absorbed from what it eats and from being in the water," she said.
Even so, the skull is almost assuredly thousands of years old, Gronhovd said.
"We usually don't find human remains this old because remains don't usually last that long," she said.
She acknowledged that the skull was "an interesting find, but said it was more important that the remains have been returned to his descendants.
"It's good to bring this person back home," Gronhovd said.
Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report.