SPOKANE, Wash. – “When we buried our son we didn’t know that the coroner
had kept his brain,” Calvin Nomee said.
Little Nicholas Cotton, son of Nomee, Coeur d’Alene, and Clarisa Cotton,
Spokane, was born Oct. 6, 2004 and died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome
(SIDS) less than five months later on March 7.
SIDS is a major problem among all races and ethnic groups, but it hits
American Indians especially hard. The rate is more than twice that of the
general population and the highest rate of all race and ethnic groups. It
strikes Indian infants about three times more frequently than it does
It’s been no stranger to Nomee, who has had five or six closely related
youngsters taken by SIDS, mostly nieces and nephews. The death of Nicholas
was devastating, but what happened since has Nomee fighting mad and anxious
to warn others of possible problems that can occur after death.
Each state has its own laws concerning infant deaths, but an autopsy is
generally mandatory to rule out possible causes other than SIDS. Calvin
signed papers OK’ing the autopsy even though it’s mandatory in the state of
Washington. No other papers were signed.
Nicholas’ body was returned to the parents March 9, two days after his
death. The funeral followed on the 11th. The autopsy report was due out on
the 15th but when Nomee didn’t hear the results, he checked with the
medical examiner’s office on March 18 and was told “we haven’t done his
brain yet.” He was also told that it would eventually be discarded, as they
don’t keep brains, although they are disposed of in respectful way.
Nomee was devastated by the news. He had been raised in a traditional
family, and the burial of the youngster with a part missing – the brain –
struck particularly hard. The elders taught him that, as much as possible,
everything you come into this world with you should take with you when you
“Everything we have goes with us. It’s always been that way. I never heard
of anybody going without all their body parts,” Nomee commented. “At times
bodies may be kept for a long time during autopsies till everything is
returned and before burial takes place. I have never heard of taking and
keeping body parts.”
He is in a unique place to know, because for 25 years he oversaw funerals
on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation.
During that time he’s helped nearly every family on the reservation. When
he learned the medical examiner’s office had kept his son’s brain, he said,
“I was dumbfounded. How in God’s name could somebody do that? How can they
just disregard people’s religious beliefs and ethnic upbringing? It was the
biggest thing that ever happened in my life!”
When told the brain would be discarded, he became irate. Washington law
provides for taking and keeping the brain without permission from the
parents, but that didn’t ease his anger at the system. He had no problem
with removing the brain for further analysis and said he’d have willingly
accepted that if it might in any way help some children survive in the
future. He’s upset because he was not told in advance so the burial could
have been postponed until the brain was returned.
Nomee will receive back his son’s brain. He insisted on its return and
informed the authorities they were disrespecting his right to bury his
family in the customs of his people.
He plans to have it cremated and then will mix it with soil from both the
Coeur d’Alene and Spokane reservations before scattering it at the grave
site. “When we put someone in the ground, we use soil from each reservation
of the parents or each place they lived because those are the memories that
person had,” Nomee said. But had he not followed up on the coroner’s
report, he would never have known.
On a more positive note, the results of the analysis of the brain will be
sent to New Zealand and added to a huge database relating to SIDS. A letter
from the Spokane County Medical Examiner also expressed remorse in saying,
“I regret that this delay in analysis of the brain has caused you and your
family added grief and concern.”
Nomee’s mission at this point is to inform Indian country to check the laws
in their own states concerning autopsies and disposition of body parts. The
incidence of SIDS is so high in the Indian community that everyone should
be aware of what might happen after a death and then take steps to prevent
the loss of body parts during autopsies.
Some likely don’t care, but in a traditional family it can be devastating.
As Nomee’s aunt commented, “Tell everybody of every color to be deathly