Cultures Unite to Bury Unknown Pioneer
We will likely never know his name, but yesterday we laid him to rest, high above Historic Deadwood. It was a re-interment service for the unidentified remains of a nineteenth century Deadwood ancestor.
With a combination of Chinese Taoism, Lakota Sioux tradition and Catholic Christian rites, it was easily the most interesting and culturally diverse graveside service that I’ve ever attended.
It began in the spring of 2006, when construction workers in Deadwood were dismantling a retaining wall in the Presidential Neighborhood. In the process, they unearthed the remains of a long-since-forgotten burial coffin. For the next three days, the Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) and the South Dakota Archaeological Research Center (SD-ARC) carefully excavated the site and revealed the human remains of one of Deadwood’s early pioneers.
You see, the area of the discovery had previously been the location of Ingleside Cemetery – Deadwood’s first – before Mt. Moriah Cemetery. Most burials from Ingleside were moved up the hill to Mt. Moriah when it was established in 1878. This grave, for one reason or another, failed to get moved.
The remains came to be called the ‘unknown pioneer’ and were transported to Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota for forensic analysis. Findings showed that the remains dated from the late 1870s and were those of an adult male between 25 and 34 years of age at the time of death. Height was reconstructed to be between 5’4″ and 5’8″ and the bones showed little evidence of skeletal disease.
Race was classified as Mongoloid, possibly Native American or Chinese in origin. Both were plausible because American Indians lived in and passed through Deadwood often and there was a population of Chinese immigrants also living and working in town.
The City of Deadwood wanted to properly honor and re-inter the unknown pioneer, so contacted Lakota and Chinese cultural advisers about the remains. On December 16, 2008, delegates from the Pine Ridge Oglala and Rosebud Sioux Tribes, the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, Deadwood HPC and SD-ARC met to determine an appropriate course of action.
An agreement was reached and an important partnership was formed between the different groups. Since the true identity was not known, all parties decided to honor these remains simply ‘as a person.’ Each group would pay their respects and honor cultural traditions in their own ways, while combining them into one graveside ceremony.
And that’s what yesterday was all about – honoring all cultures involved while giving these remains a respectable and permanent burial. The unknown pioneer was laid to rest high on Mt. Moriah, near the Seth Bullock gravesite.
The public service was a unique cultural combination of rituals. Since the remains were found in an Anglo-American style casket, Father Kerry Prendiville of Deadwood’s St. Ambrose Catholic Church, offered a Christian burial rite of scripture and a blessing.
Taoist spiritual leader, Master E-Man of California, lead the traditional Chinese ceremony. Oglala Sioux traditional spiritual leader, Wilmer Mesteth, concluded the interment by providing Lakota prayers and songs over the grave.
The permanent site marker was engraved with cultural symbols and “In Honor of Our Ancestor” in English, Chinese and Lakota.
Click the photos below for larger versions.
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