They wrapped her bones tightly in a blanket, on a bed of bamboo, and lowered her into the ground, the smoke from a smoldering pot of sage rising behind them.
Kui Red Eagle, draped with a green shawl, then knelt over the grave at Oakwood Cemetery and sang in Lakota.
“I was telling her thank you,” said Red Eagle, a Fort Worth woman with deep ties to the Lakota and Comanche tribes. “Thank you for the validation. Thank you for showing yourself.”
Red Eagle and about 30 others, including Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson, held a burial ceremony Thursday evening for the unidentified Native American woman, whose remains are believed to be about 1,100 years old.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The remains were found in March 2016 by construction workers who were digging a trench at the corner of Lexington and Weatherford in downtown Fort Worth.
Dana Austin, an anthropologist with the Tarrant County medical examiner's office, used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of the remains and estimated the woman was likely in her 30s and buried between 790 a.d. and 990 a.d.
The discovery was rare. Only a handful of similar cases over the last 20 years have been investigated by the medical examiner's office and each one involved remains from about the same time frame, Austin said.
As a professional, the experience fascinated Austin. But she grew a personal connection to the bones, too, and participated in the ceremony Thursday, helping lower the woman's remains into the grave.
“I made sure that the remains stayed in my custody and didn't let anyone else take them until we knew for sure they were going to the right place,” Austin said.
The federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires Native American remains and artifacts are returned to a proper grave.
The right person to help with that, Austin and county officials learned, was Eddie Sandoval, a Native American spiritual leader in Fort Worth.
When Sandoval saw the bones for the first time, he had to step away.
“I went home and prayed and meditated and asked for direction,” Sandoval said. “As a sun dancer, you respect those things and feelings that the Great Father tells you.”
Sandoval soon realized a proper burial ceremony would be needed.
He built the small bed out of bamboo. He carved a spear out of a deer bone and made a drinking cup out of a gourd, artifacts that the woman would have used when she was alive. And he planned Thursday's ceremony, arranging a burial plot at Oakwood, off Northside Drive.
The plot sits on the side of a small mound facing downtown, giving the woman a view of where she lay for all those years.
Red Eagle, who often participates in Native American rituals with Sandoval, called the woman “Grandmother” and cried as Sandoval and others scooped dirt back into the grave.
“It's a homecoming,” Red Eagle said. “It's finality. It's recognition.”