The partially buried human skeleton sent chills running up and down my spine. I had been a police detective for over a decade and viewed bodies in every state of decomposition. No flesh clung to the bones. No putrid stench lingered in the air. Why did this one bother me? The skull was partly intact, and enough teeth remained to send me a ghoulish grin.
My stomach churned, and I was relieved when my partner waved at me. Thankful to be away from the burial site, I moved in Ed’s direction a few hundred yards from the grave and breathed in fresh air.
“Lee,” Ed said, “the anthropologist will be here in a few minutes. Since you’ve worked with her before, I’d like for you to go over the details when she gets here.”
“You all right? You look like you’re not feeling well.”
“Must be coming down with something.”
“Take it easy until the anthropologist arrives.” Ed returned to the grave.
Whatever had affected me vanished now that I was away from the skeleton. I spoke with a couple of the uniformed officers, waiting patiently, when a mud-spattered pickup truck pulled alongside us.
A petite woman, no taller than my wife Phoebe, got out and gave me a stern look. “Detective Crowley, I hope you haven’t called me out on a beautiful Friday evening for a dog or a deer.”
“Give a guy a break,” I said with embarrassment, recalling all too well the previous case we had worked on together. “It’s not like the skeleton was intact. How could I have known it wasn’t a child’s?”
“It practically woofed at you.” She cracked a grin. “It’s good seeing you again, Lee.”
“Good seeing you, too.” We exchanged a good laugh before I explained the present situation. “This one is human, Jan. The property owners broke ground to build a new addition on their home when the skeleton was uncovered. We need to know whether it’s something for our department or Historic Resources.”
She pulled out a bulky black gear bag from the bed of the pickup. When I offered to carry it for her, she declined. “I’m not an invalid,” she said, throwing the bag over her shoulder.
I gestured the way to the grave site. “You sound like my wife.”
“She sounds like a wonderful woman.”
Thinking of Phoebe, I smiled. “She is, and you’d never believe me if I told you how far she’s traveled just so the two of us could be together.”
“It must have been true love. Let’s see what you have for me.”
We got closer to the burial site and met with Ed. That odd sensation overcame me again. I shivered.
Jan donned her gloves and bent down. She inspected the protruding pelvis. “Your victim is an adult male.”
Normally I was amazed at how little she needed in order to identify the sex of a skeleton, but nausea returned to my stomach.
She studied the skull. “I can’t be certain without extensive measurements, but the fact that he was buried facing east and has shovel-shaped incisors, I’d be willing to bet he’s Native American.”
Bile rose in my throat. Unable to control the sick feeling any longer, I turned away from the scene and vomited.
Someone patted me on the back. “Must be the fact that he could be kin,” came Ed’s sympathetic voice.
Not only did I appear foolish, but I looked like a rookie too. I hadn’t had that kind of reaction since my early years when I had worked patrol duty. The fact that it was nothing more than a skeleton made my embarrassment worse. When I was certain I wasn’t going to throw up again, I wiped my mouth with my handkerchief.
“If he’s kin, he’s a very distant relative,” Jan said, still examining the skeleton. “Without further testing, there’s no way to determine how long he’s been buried here, but I’m guessing it’s been for at least a couple hundred years.”
Or longer? He could have been related, for I was Paspahegh, the last of my tribe.
Nearly two months passed before I saw Jan Kelsey again. She called me one afternoon and said she had some findings to show me from the skeleton that had been unearthed. While the case wasn’t one for our department, I had followed up to make certain the Virginia Council on Indians had been contacted. The owners of the property had pursued a court order to have the skeleton removed to continue with their building project, and I had wanted to make certain that he received a respectful reburial.
I hadn’t visited campus for a couple years when my former professor had solved the puzzle that Phoebe spoke Virginia Algonquian. I had a rudimentary knowledge of the language myself, and with Phoebe’s help, my comprehension gradually increased. This meeting was a little different though, and I was uncertain what to expect.
Woods surrounded the red-brick buildings. I was walking along the dogwood-lined sidewalk, when several crows cawed furiously. With a loud racket, the birds dive-bombed a hawk flying overhead. Was it a sign from the spirits? I was too new to such things to sense any significance, but I had the feeling it could not be a good sign.
The confrontation in the sky held my attention until the hawk retreated, with the crows following in hot pursuit. Convinced there must be some hidden meaning, I entered the hall that housed the anthropology department and went up a flight of stairs to locate Jan’s office.
She greeted me with a tight-lipped smile.
“What’s wrong, Jan?”
“I think it would be easier to show you.” She grabbed a manila folder and led the way down the hall to the lab. “A couple of the tribes have claimed the skeleton to oversee his reburial. They were gracious enough to let us study him beforehand as long as we did so with reverence, but I’m sure you’re aware of the protocol.”
Amazed that people presumed I knew proper conduct simply because I was an Indian, I let the comment slide. Normally I would have had some sort of comeback, but I was curious about what she had discovered.
Jan opened the manila folder and spread several papers across the table. “Pelvic and skull measurements verified that our skeleton was a Native American male. Resorting to a number or calling him John Doe seemed inappropriate. We called him Crow Spirit.”
The same sick feeling I’d had while standing over the grave hit me in the gut again.
“Lee, are you all right?”
“It’s nothing.” I waved my hand. “My Algonquian name translates to Crow in the Woods.”
She stared at me. Though I hadn’t been raised in the Paspahegh way, where direct eye contact was considered rude, it made me uneasy all the same. What the hell was wrong with me? In my line of work I frequently used such techniques to intimidate others, but Jan’s gaze indicated disbelief.
“Interesting,” she said, swallowing before she continued. “We weren’t allowed to do a carbon dating to confirm when Crow Spirit had been buried because a sample would need to have been collected, which is destroyed in the dating process.”
Jan didn’t elaborate, but I was aware that most tribes equated such destruction to a loss of spirit. What did I believe? Caught between cultures, I remained unsure.
“You had a question?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“In my professional opinion, Crow Spirit had been buried for over two hundred years. No fabric remained to give us a clue as to what he wore, so there’s no way to verify whether he had been buried pre-European contact or after. No weapons were found, which is highly unusual. Men were often buried with them because they believed they would be needed in the afterlife.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“Sorry, I’m lecturing, but I wanted to give you a full report.”
“I’m still confused why you called me.”
She motioned for me to be patient. “I’m getting to that. Crow Spirit’s cranial sutures were completely fused. There was some joint decay in the rest of his body, meaning that he had some arthritis. I’d estimate he was around forty or fifty, but not elderly. He had no cavities, which is a little unusual. Contrary to what many believe, the Eastern Woodland indigenous populations had their fair share of dental cavities even before the Europeans arrived, due to their starchy diet.
“The long bones, namely the femur and tibia, are measured to determine height. He was over six feet tall. While that’s not out of the realm for this group of people, a man’s average height was around five feet eight. John Smith had a habit of painting the Powhatan people as giants, but actual skeletal measurements reveal otherwise. He had a fracture of the left femur, completely healed, which means the injury took place long before his death. What puzzles me is how they managed to set the bone. I really wish I could have studied the femur further, but it was skillfully set for the time period. I couldn’t determine a cause of death. There were no noticeable traumatic injuries, but I didn’t really have the time I needed to make an in-depth analysis.”
“If you’re asking me to go to the Council, I have no authority—”
“No, that’s not why I called you here.”
“Then why? This is all very interesting, but I don’t see what it has to do with me.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, what tribe do you belong to?”
No one would believe that I was Paspahegh; the tribe had been annihilated in the seventeenth century. “I was raised by a white couple. I never really knew my birth parents.” The statement was true and allowed me to evade the question.
“I see.” Another nervous swallow. “I think your partner may have been right. We may have uncovered one of your ancestors.”
“My…?” No wonder I had felt uneasy from the beginning. “Why do you think he’s my ancestor?”
“One of my students does facial reconstructions. I had read an article in Archaeology several years back about a similar collaboration, and assure you we got permission before proceeding with such an undertaking. We treated the skull with complete respect. First my student made a plaster cast, then used markers to identify the depths of tissue. Sorry, I’m lecturing again. Let me show you.”
She led me to the opposite end of the lab where a clay facial reconstruction sat on a table. Jan’s student had used a black wig fashioned in the old style where warriors had shaved the right side of their heads to keep their hair from getting caught in their bowstrings. The prominent cheekbones and shape of the nose and mouth had an uncanny resemblance to me. It was almost like looking in a mirror.
“Well?” she asked.
Hadn’t she stated that Crow Spirit’s broken leg looked like it had been set skillfully for the time period? I licked my lips. “You said that he had broken his left femur?”
Nearly two years before, I had broken my left leg from a gunshot wound. I clenched my fist to keep from crying out. Crow Spirit wasn’t an ancestor of mine. He was me.