Protection of Indian Burial Sites in Nevada

HUMAN REMAINS

When a human bone or skeleton is found accidentally or as part of an archaeological project, there are several laws that require consideration.  To provide you with a clearer understanding of the legal intricacies of human remains, the following are the essential legal statutes regarding human remains.  Nevada law enforcement personnel ordinarily operate under “dead body” statutes that specify county jurisdiction over unmarked graves, and usually assume they have jurisdiction until it is demonstrated the remains are either non-human or of an ancient Indian covered by other laws.

  • NRS 440.020  “Dead body” means a lifeless human body, or such severed parts of the human body or the bones thereof, from the state of which it reasonably may be concluded that death had recently occurred, and where the circumstances under which such dead body was found indicate that the death has not been recorded.
  • NRS 440.025  “Human remains” and “remains”  means the body of a deceased person, and includes the body in any state of decomposition and the cremated remains of a body.

Despite these definitions, the state of a mummified human body might, to the casual observer, reasonably lead to the conclusion that death had occurred recently, when it is really thousands of years since death.  Other factors make application of the law to human remains complex, and difficult to determine accurately.  Due to Nevada's dry climate, condition of the remains is not a reliable indicator of time since death, and several ancient mummified bodies have been found in Western Nevada.

 PROTECTION OF INDIAN BURIAL SITES

In 1989, the Nevada legislature passed a law (NRS 383.150 to 383.190) to protect Native American graves on private and public land.  This law was updated with the passage of Senate Bill 244 in the 2017 Legislature.  

The Nevada legislation protecting Indian burials is included in the portion of the Nevada Revised Statutes that covers the State Historic Preservation Office.  The full text of this law is presented here, and we urge all concerned parties to read it carefully.  Because it covers private land and county land this legislation has more far-reaching impact in some respects than any other law in Nevada concerning cultural resources.  Note that under Nevada law, it is illegal to publicly display Indian remains, and this may include television, photographs, exhibits, and lectures using human bones.  It is also now illegal to find an Indian burial and not report it, even if on private property, and it is illegal to possess or sell an Indian burial or artifacts from an Indian grave.

SHPO PROCEDURES FOR THE PROTECTION OF INDIAN BURIAL SITES

This procedural document is currently in draft form here.  Please feel free to send comments on this document to rlpalmer [at] shpo.nv.gov or by calling 775-684-3443 by December 1, 2018.