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Aniak’s tribe sues state, feds over ancestral remains taken from airport site

Looking out at Aniak's airport runway, 2018.
Krysti Shallenberger
Looking out at Aniak's airport runway, 2018.

Aniak’s tribal government is suing state and federal agencies for allegedly taking human remains from an airport site and not returning them – and not allowing the tribe to excavate the site.

The Aniak Traditional Council, the federally-recognized tribe for the Kuskokwim River community, says the actions of the federal and state agencies are a violation of federal law because they’ve barred the tribe from practicing its cultural and religious traditions and have endangered other ancestral remains of Aniak’s tribe that could still be at the community’s airport.

The suit names five defendants: the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT&PF), DOT&PF Commissioner Ryan Anderson, the University of Alaska system, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and FAA administrator Michael Whitaker.

Aniak Traditional Council is represented by Anchorage-based firm Fortier & Mikko, P.C.

The tribe wants the excavated remains to be returned and to be allowed to continue exploring the site to recover and preserve other remains or cultural artifacts.

According to court filings from July 2, the suit stems from a project to relocate Aniak’s airport runway to comply with federal aviation standards.

In 2020, a contractor digging trenches for the project found human remains. Almost a year later, the Aniak Traditional Council brought in an archaeologist to examine the site. The suit says the archaeologist discovered that the airport project cut a trench through a “previously intact prehistoric burial site.”

The recovered remains and related artifacts were sent to the University of Alaska for examination.

Since then, Aniak Traditional Council says that the University of Alaska has kept the remains, and that the Federal Aviation Administration has refused to assist in repatriation in violation of federal law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

The Aniak Traditional Council also claims that the FAA and Alaska Department of Transportation have barred the tribe from further excavation. Aniak’s tribal government is concerned that airport maintenance could further disturb the site.

Reached July 3, a spokesperson for the Federal Aviation Administration said the agency does not comment on litigation.

Sage Smiley is KYUK's news director.