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The Long Goodbye of DeeRoy Spence

The Long Goodbye of DeeRoy Spence
March 25
15:23 2015

spencerBy John Christian Hopkins

Where – and how – should DeeRoy “Spence” Spencer be buried?

That’s the issue that pits a California widow against the Navajo Nation. Spencer, 69, was a member of the tribe.

The Vietnam veteran had gone to New Mexico for traditional healing when he passed away on January 17. His wife, Jean LaMarr, a member of the Susanville Indian Rancheria, had his body returned to their home in Susanville, Calif, where she planned to have him cremated and laid to rest with full military honors in the local cemetery.

When Spencer’s family learned of the cremation plans, they stepped in, petitioning the Navajo District Court to order LaMarr to return Spencer’s body to the Navajo reservation.

Judge Geraldine Benally issued the order on January 23.The order forbade LaMarr from having her late husband cremated – as that was contrary to Navajo beliefs.

A New Mexico District Court rejected her petition for relief and ordered his body be returned within 72 hours. LaMarr’s attorney warned her that she could face a $1,000-per-day fine for noncompliance.

LaMarr returned her husband’s body to a mortuary in Shiprock, N.M. But LaMarr, a well-known artist and Indian activist, has not given up the fight. She took her case to New Mexico District Court, but on February 3 the court told LaMarr that to challenge a Navajo court decision she would have to appeal to the Navajo Supreme Court.

Navajo Nation courts have jurisdiction in civil matters on the reservation, whether between Indians or non-tribal members.

Spence’s niece, Chenoa Bah Jensen, is listed as the petitioner in tribal court documents. According to several newspapers, Jensen did not return calls seeking comment.

LaMarr, 69, is seeking a lawyer that can take the case to federal court.

Meanwhile, Benally ruled that Spencer’s family could proceed with burial plans immediately. They want to bury him in a veterans’ cemetery in Fort Defiance, Ariz., in a plot he had bought next to his brother.

LaMarr wanted his remains buried at the Diamond Crest Military Cemetery in Susanville.

Though born on the Navajo reservation, Spencer lived most of his adult life in northern California.

The case not only pits a spouse’s wishes against her in-laws, but touches on a usually taboo subject among the Navajos and many other native tribes – death.

“Navajos should not fight over dead bodies,” Benally wrote in her decision, “unless they themselves want misfortune to occur upon one’s family.”

This taboo extended to the east coast, as well. Among the Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island a deceased person’s name was not be spoken for a year. Wampanoag Sachem Metacomet (King Philip) once chased a man 50 miles through the forest to kill him for speaking ill of his father – Massasoit – shortly have the old sachem’s death.

Under Navajo tradition, a deceased person’s body must be buried within four days. It is believed that when a person dies, the spirit passes into another realm and belongs to the Holy People.

Talking about death or the deceased is seen as an invitation to bring harm upon one’s family. It is also taboo to touch a dead body. To do so, requires a special cleansing ceremony to protect the person.

LaMarr and Spencer were together for 47 years, married for more than 20 and lived in Susanville – about 85-miles north of Reno, Nev. – for 33 years.

“He always said, ‘This is where I live. I love it here’,” LaMarr said. She said he expressed his wish to be buried there so they could be together.

Spencer’s family claimed they tried to talk with LaMarr after the death, but she hung up on them.

As for the Navajo Court, it ruled that LaMarr’s power of attorney over her late husband ended with Spencer’s death.

LaMarr’s sister, Indian educator Cindy LaMarr, contacted the offices of California Gov. Jerry Brown and State Attorney General Kamala Harris, but both declined to help.

“This has been hard for (Jean),” Cindy LaMarr said. “She hasn’t even had time to grieve yet.”

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