BONES OF CONTENTION

THE LAW REQUIRES THE REBURIAL OF INDIAN REMAINS. SO WHY ARE THERE STILL 700 SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET?

ADOT has to pay for the archaeological work because it wants to widen the road. To ADOT's great relief, it can pass the human remains to the Forest Service because they came out of National Forest land. And in the forest hierarchy, the bones stop here, on Scott Wood's desk.

Wood looks like an anthropological study himself. He's got a shoulder-length red ponytail, John Lennon wire-rimmed glasses and a wardrobe that suggests he couldn't decide if he wanted to be a cowboy or a biker. His voice booms in the lower pitches of college professors, but with the exasperated expression of a government bureaucrat.

"There's probably more archaeology in this region--Arizona and New Mexico--than all the rest of the Forest Service combined," he says. It's probably not an overstatement. "And within this region, the Tonto and the Coconino probably have the highest densities in the state. We have an awful lot."

He has an awful lot of materials to repatriate, as well, 700 or so prehistoric skeletons and thousands of pots that have been pulled out of graves on the forest in the five years since Congress passed NAGPRA, not just from road projects but also from the Bureau of Reclamation's expansion of Roosevelt Dam.

The fact is, Wood doesn't really know just how much material he has. The excavations and studies are ongoing, he explains, the remains scattered among the various archaeological contractors or stored in cardboard boxes in federal repositories. Reports in progress and partial inventories are stacked higher and thicker than a Hohokam ceremonial mound on his desk in the forest headquarters on McDowell Road in Phoenix. He may soon need to call in archaeologists to excavate his own body from beneath the backlog of NAGPRA duties. And though he sincerely wants to satisfy the law and all of the Indian tribes involved, he still doesn't know how he's going to get rid of the material.

The Arizona tribes want it taken care of, but they certainly don't want it back because in many Native American cultures, the dead are bad luck--one Native American leader described handling the remains as like handling uranium.

"You may not die right away, but eventually, you will get cancer," he told ADOT officials.

In the Phoenix area, in central Arizona in general, the southern tribes--the Salt River and Gila River Pima, the Ak-Chin and the Tohono O'odham--will actually take possession of the remains, if reluctantly, and rebury them on their own lands. They interred the Pueblo Grande bodies, for example.

Remains found farther north, in the Tonto Basin, are claimed jointly by the Hopi and Zuni, but they are both very traditional peoples whose religion simply has no contingency for digging up the dead. Life on earth, in their world view, is but one of several life stages, and the rest of the journey requires that the body return to the earth.

As Scott Wood says, "Hopi consider that these people are markers for where Hopi went over the centuries. Wherever there are remains, there went Hopi. To dig them up would be like taking down the signposts on the highway."

However, neither Hopi nor Zuni will allow any funerary materials to cross into their reservations, but rather insist that they be reinterred as close as possible to where they were exhumed.

Still, both tribes are anxious to cooperate with Wood in figuring out a reburial procedure. "It has been very difficult," says Leigh Jenkins of the Hopi. "We have absolutely no experience with this. It's something we are learning as we go along."

Wood echoes those sentiments in government vernacular.
"We have a law but no regulations, so we make the stuff up as we go. I want these people," he says, meaning the remains, "out of the repositories and back in the ground, because that's what we told people we are going to do. And I want to get it over with. I want to get the procedures established so that the next project down the road we don't have to go through all this crap."

Arizona's first repatriation case under the burial laws proved to be a political nightmare.

In the late 1980s, ADOT signed a $3.5 million contract with Cory Breternitz and Soil Systems Inc. to investigate prehistoric sites where ADOT planned to build the Hohokam Freeway adjacent to the Pueblo Grande Museum.

Though the area had long been an industrial park and a stockyard, just a foot or so beneath the well-beaten surface was a remarkable number of dwellings and artifacts, including nearly 800 human remains and more than 2,000 whole or restorable ceramic vessels that had been buried with the skeletons.

In 1990, SSI sent the human remains to a lab in Colorado in order to run tests, some of which were minimally destructive to the bones. From that analysis, SSI learned that the Hohokam who lived there suffered greatly from disease and malnutrition. Life in the Salt River Valley was hard, which may help explain why the Hohokam left for parts unknown.

To help determine where the tribe went, SSI planned to follow up with a dental study of the remains, which might have yielded clues as to the identity of the Hohokam's descendants. Then the state burial laws went into effect and the plug was pulled on SSI's research.

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