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Oregon tribal community wins right to get back amputated body parts in new law

For certain cultural beliefs, keeping a person's body together is pertinent for a smooth transition to the spirit world. A new Oregon law ensures that can happen.

SALEM, Ore. — A new Oregon law that goes into effect in September will allow health care facilities to return amputated body parts to patients for cultural, spiritual or religious reasons. For certain cultural beliefs, keeping a person's body together is pertinent for a smooth transition to the spirit world.

Senate Bill 189 was led by Bend-based St. Charles Health System and leaders of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. Governor Tina Kotek signed the bill into law in July. The bill allows people to keep amputated body parts if it's intended for cremation, internment or other final wishes.

Shilo Tippett, a Warm Springs Tribal member and manager of caregiver inclusion experience at St. Charles, told KGW that this is a legitimate practice for many in tribal communities.

"Some tribal people keep everything — so when they get their hair cut, or it comes out when they're brushing, they keep that in a pillowcase or in a satchel for time of death," said Tippett. "Same with fingernail clippings and other things like that ... A lot of people don't know that this is a very legitimate real practice for many people, and so when you contrast that to how the law was versus how it is now, it will have huge impact and will be so meaningful to many people."

The current state law makes returning body parts either difficult or impossible, stating in part that "pathological waste is treated by incineration in an incinerator providing complete combustion of waste to ash and is disposed of as provided in rules adopted by the environmental quality commission."

This has meant that tribal members will often receive ashes back after an amputation, if they receive anything at all. According to Tippett, this led some people to postpone critical medical care for fear that they will not be able to live or die in accord with their spiritual beliefs.

"There's celebrations here in our health care system, because for surgeons and medical staff and lab staff, it hasn't felt great that we're not able to honor this very important belief for our patients. So it means a great deal to our tribal people, into our health care system and community," said Tippett.

Tribes have different beliefs and not all tribal people have this belief. But for those who do, Tippett said, there are a number of well-trained and very experienced undertakers in Warm Springs. Historically, when a tribal member had a body part amputated, the undertaker would take care of that body part until that person died — and there are several ways to do this.

"There's medical grade freezers that can be used to freeze the body part until it's ready. Another practice is that it's buried on tribal land, obviously cared for by the undertaker who is organized in that area, and then once the person passes away, the body part would be on earth and then put back into the body," said Tippett.

This law isn't unique. Tippett told KGW that those who drafted the bill leaned on the wording of a similar law in Washington state which achieved the same thing.

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