Texas cemetery opens for American Indians

Don McAlavy: Local columnist

MORTON, Texas — This story began in the late 1950s when a wooden box containing human bones was found in the old Cochran County Museum in Morton.
Morton is about 30 miles south of Muleshoe.
The box was labeled “Indian bones — part of skeleton found in southern Cochran County.”
Maxine Yeary and her family found a human skull on their ranch land near Pie Town in western New Mexico. Rains had eroded the soil and exposed the skull. Family members believed the remains were from a Native American. The Yearys later moved to Cochran County.
Bones from both finds remained in boxes, in the old museum, but were not put on display. I was told it’s against the law to display human bones.
In 1990, the Texas State Historical Commission issued an act for the burying or displaying of Indian bones. The bones were moved to the new museum in Morton, now called Texas’ Last Frontier Museum. (The old museum burned down but not before all the artifacts were removed, including the bones.)
About four years ago, a Navajo Indian named Ken “Yazzie” Chambellan, a physician’s assistant, was hired to work in the hospital at Morton. When the Indian bones came to his attention, he and the staff at the museum started making plans that would place the bones in a proper grave, which they called a “respectful ceremony.”
Dorothy Barker, chair of the Cochran County Historical Commission and one of the museum caretakers along with Betty Akin, Sammie Simpson, and Pat Clayton, went to the Cochran County commissioners. They asked for permission to bury the bones in the Morton Memorial Cemetery at the north edge of town.
The county commissioners approved the designation of 10 grave sites on the far western edge of the cemetery. Yazzie asked that the burial sites be as far away from the other graves as possible as Indians would prefer that.
So, at 11 a.m. on March 10, a small group gathered at the cemetery, some 150 yards up the rising slope of cemetery land, toward the southwest corner where now a huge native stone rests.
Yazzie presided at the grave-site rites, sprinkling fragments of cedar ashes around the gravesite to mark a sacred place. Part of the ceremony involved an eagle feather waving the smoke of a smudge torch woven from native leaves and grasses.
There were two pine boxes of bones, measuring 18 by 18 by 18 inches made by Donnie Kuehler. The two boxes were buried in one grave. The boxes containing the remains were wrapped in a red woolen blanket to evoke and symbolize good things.
Yazzie had, prior to the ceremony, contacted area tribal organizations regarding a fitting ceremony to inter the remains. He used a speech that Comanche Chief Quanah Parker’s adviser, Ten Bears, had used.
It started with, “I was born upon the prairie where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures and where everything drew free breath.” It ended with, “Do not stand at my grave and weep. I am not there. I do not sleep. I am a thousand winds that blow. I am the diamond glint of snow.”
Earlier, as ceremony attendees had begun to arrive and form a circle around the gravesite, a V-shape formation of migrating birds passed gracefully overhead.
The museum and the historical commission are considering inscribing all or part of Yazzie’s graveside tribute on a bronze plaque. The Morton Memorial Native American burial site is thought to be the only county-designated public burial site for unidentified American Indian remains in Texas.
Many newspapers have sent reporters to Texas’ Last Frontier Museum to learn more about these Indian burials. The museum can be contacted by calling 1-806-266-5484, or by e-mail: jodaphi2@juno.com

Don McAlavy is Curry County’s historian. He can be contacted at:
donmcalavy@plateautel.net