Tohono O’odham Nation reburying bones, fear more digs

By Tom Beal
Tucson, Arizona (AP) 6-09

The Tohono O’odham Nation will soon rebury the remains of nearly 200 of their ancestors, dug up in the late 1970s and early ‘80s by teams of archaeologists working on what was then known as the Anamax-Rosemont site.

They fear further disturbance of their ancestors’ graves if permission is given to Rosemont Copper to dig an open-pit copper mine in the foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains – an area rich with archaeological evidence of Hohokam and other settlements.

If that happens, the Tohono O’odham will do what they already have done with thousands of cremated and skeletal remains dug up in the name of science or in advance of pipelines, freeways and housing developments.

They will bless them and rebury them in ceremonies that Joe Joaquin has a tough time calling traditional.

“There was no ceremony for reburial, because we don’t do that,” said Joaquin, who has coordinated repatriation activities for the nation since the late 1980s.

Joaquin is busier than ever these days, working with colleague Peter Steere in the cultural affairs office of the tribe to pore over inventories of human remains, associated funerary objects, sacred items or objects of cultural patrimony compiled by the nation’s museums under the terms of a 1990 law called the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA.

“I’m still fighting the scientists,” said Joaquin, adding that he has never understood why archaeologists needed to study his ancestors’ bones.

“If they want to know how people lived and what they ate, they should ask their descendants,” he said. “What are these people doing on a shelf? They should be down here in the dirt where we put them.”

“That kind of disparity led Native Americans to vocally protest the desecration of their ancestors,” said Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, curator and NAGPRA coordinator for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

He said the movement toward repatriation is often traced to 1971, when archaeologists working in advance of a highway project near Glenwood, Iowa, uncovered 28 skeletons.
 

They quickly reburied 26 that were of European descent in the hallowed ground of a nearby cemetery. Two skeletons identified as Indian were sent to the University of Iowa for curation as part of a museum collection. It became a rallying cry.

It took two decades, but Congress ultimately passed NAGPRA.

“NAGPRA can be viewed as a major human-rights advance,” Steere said. “It returned a fundamental right to the native community.”

At the time, it was viewed with trepidation.

“In 1989, there was this huge fear that museums would be emptied – there would be nothing left in museums to study,” Colwell-Chanthaphonh said. “As we near the 20th year (under NAGPRA), we can say categorically that hasn’t happened. Rather than limiting research, it has inspired more research, better research, new research that wasn’t done before 1990.”

The Arizona State Museum, which is repository for a lion’s share of archaeological artifacts in the region, lists 5,930 sets of remains in its inventory, most of which, 4,904, can be directly affiliated with an existing tribe. It has repatriated 693 sets of remains under NAGPRA. It also lists 6,962 “funerary objects,” or items buried with the remains, including pots into which cremated remains have been placed.

The Rosemont remains were uncovered when Anamax Mining Co. proposed a land swap with the U.S. Forest Service. Archaeologists surveyed 14 Hohokam sites that existed in the Santa Rita foothills between A.D. 600 and 1200, including a major settlement with a ball court and two cemetery sites for both cremated and full burials.

The 193 individual remains were recovered from 11 separate sites.

Rosemont Copper has proposed its open-pit mine on private and public land in the general area of that original site. The company “was aware of what’s gone on out there as far as knowing what needs to be mitigated,” said Kathy Arnold, Rosemont’s director of environmental and regulatory affairs. Rosemont specifically avoided the “ball court site” in its plans, she said.

“We’re planning on doing everything we can to do it right and, of course, follow all the laws,” Arnold said.

Steere said he and Joaquin met with archaeologists from SWCA, an archaeology firm, who are surveying the site as part of a draft environmental-impact statement being done by the Forest Service. He said they have found 20 to 30 new sites.

The Tribal Council has taken the position that it does not want any sites disturbed, Steere said.

Gayle Hartmann, president of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, a group opposing Rosemont’s mine plan, said the company downplays the difficulty of developing that archaeologically rich area. It will be required “to do a lot more excavation out there,” she said.

Some archaeologists still argue that scientific knowledge will suffer with the loss of artifacts, including human remains, but most have come around, said John McClelland, NAGPRA coordinator for the Arizona State Museum.

Practically speaking, he said, “some of these collections sat on shelves for years and years, and nobody did anything with them.”

Eventually McClelland said, the Arizona State Museum will empty its shelves of all human remains – “at least the North American collection.”

Nationally, museums and federal agencies have inventoried 153,795 individual remains – some entire skeletons, some as small as a bone fragment. As of March 31, 37,998 had been the subject of notices of return, said Jaime Lavallee, of the national NAGPRA office, which is run by the National Park Service.

McClelland said it makes sense to return items to tribes, especially those such as the Tohono O’odham that are developing their own museums and cultural centers.

“There is a culture there that really treasures this as their heritage,” he said.

Remains and funerary objects never get to the new Tohono O’odham Nation Cultural Center and Museum in Topawa, Joaquin said. They are kept in a separate place until it’s time for a yearly reburial ceremony. The location is kept secret, and only tribal members can attend.

 

 

 

 

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