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Susanville woman battles Navajo Nation over husband’s body

Jean LaMarr of the Susanville Indian Rancheria with her late husband DeeRoy “Spence” Spencer. The couple were married for 37 years and spent their lives together in Northern California. LaMarr and her family are fighting with the Navajo Nation over his remains.
Jean LaMarr of the Susanville Indian Rancheria with her late husband DeeRoy “Spence” Spencer. The couple were married for 37 years and spent their lives together in Northern California. LaMarr and her family are fighting with the Navajo Nation over his remains.

Indian activist Jean LaMarr, who belongs to a small tribe in Susanville, wants to bury the remains of her husband of 47 years with other veterans at a local cemetery. But the mighty Navajo Nation says no: He must be buried back in Arizona, on the reservation where he was born.

DeeRoy “Spence” Spencer was a Vietnam War veteran who died on Jan. 17 at age 69. His wife, LaMarr, belongs to the 1,000-member Susanville Indian Rancheria.

On Jan. 23, a Navajo Nation judge ruled that according to Navajo law, Spencer’s body should be immediately returned to the 27,425-square mile Navajo Nation and be buried there rather than in California.

On Wednesday, after losing in both tribal and state courts, LaMarr paid to ship her husband’s body back to New Mexico, then changed her mind midafternoon as his casket was being taken in a mortuary van to the Reno airport.

“Even though I might pay a fine or go to jail, I told the mortuary to bring him back to his home in Susanville,” LaMarr said. “The fight is not over. I will bury him in the Diamond Crest Military Cemetery in Susanville this Saturday, with full honor guard.”

Acting on a petition filed by Spencer’s Navajo sister and niece, Navajo Nation Judge Geraldine Benally had ordered that Spencer be buried at the Fort Defiance Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Arizona.

The judge, who called in a traditional Navajo specialist to testify, said Spencer’s body “belongs to the Holy People,” and to fight over something that belongs to nature will bring disharmony upon his surviving relatives. “Navajos should not fight over dead bodies unless they themselves want misfortune to occur upon themselves,” she wrote.

LaMarr, a Pitt River and Paiute Indian, said she and her husband belonged to a Native American church and studied the teachings of Wovoka, the Paiute Indian prophet who invented the Ghost Dance in 1890 that swept across the nation and led to the massacre at Wounded Knee.

“He loved it here in Northern California and said he wanted to be buried next to me,” she said. “We moved to Susanville 33 years ago, and the whole community here loved him. About 100 people came to his memorial here Saturday.”

There are 205,744 Navajos in the United States, 10,423 of them in California, according to the U.S. Census. In the 1960s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs encouraged many Indians to leave impoverished reservations and relocate to big cities. Several years after he returned from the Vietnam War, Spencer moved to San Jose to be trained at the Philco-Ford Technical Institute, where he met LaMarr.

“He said he came here because there was poverty, sadness and alcoholism in Navajo Country and zero jobs for Indians,” LaMarr said.

He came back from Vietnam with malaria, PTSD and Agent Orange poisoning, but ultimately landed a job developing safety systems for the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant before being transferred to San Francisco and Chico on his way to Susanville, LaMarr said.

As his health failed, Spencer had gone to a Navajo Warrior’s Ceremony last spring in hopes of being healed for a variety of ailments, including PTSD, diabetes, alcoholism, pain from an industrial accident and sepsis of the spine, LaMarr said. While there, he took a turn for the worse and was hospitalized in Albuquerque, where his toe and part of his right foot had to be removed, according to Navajo court records. Several witnesses testified Spencer told them he wanted to be laid to rest in the Navajo veterans cemetery next to his brother, according to the Navajo court order.

Spencer spent the last few months of his life in two board and care centers in New Mexico, said LaMarr, adding she was forced to track him down and have his body shipped back to Susanville.

In its ruling against her, the Navajo judge said that, according to testimony from Spencer’s Navajo relatives, LaMarr visited him only twice during the 10 months he was hospitalized and being cared for in New Mexico. It’s a characterization LaMarr disputes, saying Spencer’s Navajo relatives purposely hid him from her and took away his phone.

“The last thing he said to me was, ‘I want to go home; if I stay here I’m going to die,’ ” she said. Spencer’s family in New Mexico did not return calls from The Bee.

On Feb. 3, New Mexico District Court Judge Alan Malott ruled that the Navajo court had jurisdiction, and ordered LaMarr to pay to have Spencer’s noncremated body shipped to a mortuary in Shiprock, N.M., within 72 hours.

On Wednesday morning, a tearful LaMarr shipped her husband’s body in a brown casket back to New Mexico because, she said, her lawyer told her she could be fined up to $1,000 a day after the 72-hour deadline. “It’s so heartbreaking,” she said. By 4:30 p.m., she had changed her mind and ordered the mortuary to bring him back to Susanville.

LaMarr’s sister, Indian educator Cindy LaMarr of Capitol Area Indian Resources Inc., said she has contacted the offices of California Gov. Jerry Brown and State Attorney General Kamala Harris to intervene so Spencer can be buried in Susanville.

“The hospital in Albuquerque wasn’t even on the reservation. Spencer didn’t expect to die there and thought Susanville was his home,” LaMarr said. “He wasn’t cremated; my sister respected the Navajo Nation’s traditions. But sending him back and forth is insane.”

The LaMarr sisters said this case isn’t over. “I’m glad we had a chance to say goodbye to him in Susanville,” Cindy LaMarr said. “The next step would be federal court in Albuquerque.” After Spencer died, Jean LaMarr said the Navajo Court ruled that she no longer had power of attorney.

“Taking his remains, along with his bank account and property, is setting a bad precedent” for other California Indians married to transplanted Navajos, Cindy LaMarr said. “It’s mind-boggling.”

Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Bee researcher Pete Basofin contributed to this report.

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