BONES OF CONTENTION

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

Word leaked to members of the four southern tribes--the Salt River and Gila River Pima, the Ak-Chin and the Tohono O'odham--that destructive analysis was being performed on Pueblo Grande remains. The Pima consider the Hohokam to be their ancestors, although there is some speculation that the Pima may have driven the Hohokam out of the Valley.

"The minute the law went into effect, they demanded the materials," says Breternitz, still perplexed by the demands. "They wanted everything, and that's not what the law states. It covers funerary objects, and that's what they got."

The Native Americans reiterated their demands; their spiritual adviser pronounced that all of the artifacts were sacred and needed to be returned.

"There were meetings that went nowhere for months," says Lynn Teague of the Arizona State Museum. They were attended by bureaucrats from ADOT and the State Museum, Indian activists, spiritual leaders and archaeologists. "There was a lot of mistrust, a lot of inept moves on all sides," says Teague.

Archaeologists from all over the region wrote letters to ADOT and SSI lamenting the loss to science if ADOT capitulated to the Indian demands. The Native Americans refused to budge. None of it ever got out to the press.

Finally, in July of 1991, fearing protest demonstrations, ADOT quietly reached agreement with the tribes. On three days in July, the Indians backed up trucks to the SSI offices and hauled away boxes full of remains and funerary objects under the supervision of an Ak-Chin spiritual adviser. The nonfunerary artifacts went to the State Museum. Joseph Joaquin of the Tohono O'odham signed the shipment manifests and officially took possession of his ancestors.

After several months of storing them in the spiritual adviser's garage, the tribes reburied the remains on the Ak-Chin reservation. Of the ceremony, the reservation newspaper noted: "Ironically, the ceremony was held on October 12, a day known to some as Columbus Day. This sacred ceremony serves as a reminder to the O'odham that we have been here for thousands of years. This, in essence, is a revitalization of our true heritage and a display of O'odham endurance."

As unpleasant as the process had been, the letter of the law had been satisfied, and all were convinced they had done the right thing.

Except Breternitz kept hearing rumors that some of the Pueblo Grande artifacts had found their way into the marketplace. He dismissed them as the sour-grapes speculations of rival archaeologists. But apparently some pots did escape repatriation, somewhere between Pueblo Grande and Ak-Chin.

Early in 1994, curators at the Arizona State Museum received an anonymous phone call from a couple who claimed they bought a bowl and a pitcher, both prehistoric polished red ware, from two young Native American men who were selling them door to door in Tucson. The pots had numbers on the bottom of them, the callers said; they read them to the museum staff, who then tried to arrange a meeting with the callers.

The museum never heard from the callers again, but did look up the numbers in the SSI inventories of materials turned over to the Tohono O'odham. The articles had come from Pueblo Grande. According to one Indian art dealer, the bowl would be worth about $50 in the legitimate market, the pitcher about $100.

It was an embarrassment for all concerned. No one could figure out--or admit--how and when these items might have been stolen. Museum officials were not sure anything illegal had taken place. Once the materials were turned over to the Indians, they could do with them whatever they liked.

Joseph Joaquin expressed his own embarrassment when asked about the incident. "We always say that with today's youth, it may happen," he says, lending credence to speculation that the pots had been stolen before they had even been reinterred. He claims that no information regarding the theft ever surfaced, and although he says he's not interested in prosecuting whoever took those objects--and who knows how many others?--he wants them returned to where they belong, to the ground.

"The spirits aren't going to go to the white people and say, 'I want my pot back,'" he told New Times. "They'll come to us."

Scott Wood, forest archaeologist, ponders the logistics of reburying his 700 skeletons and several thousand pots.

He was set to bury the bulk of them three years ago--until Forest Service lawyers reminded him that the Southwestern Region of the National Forest Service had a policy forbidding cemeteries on forest land.

"By definition, a lot of dead people in the ground creates a cemetery," Wood quips.

Last December, the Southwestern Region issued an interim directive that would allow the materials to be buried--even if the burial sites would be called something other than cemeteries.

Wood knows he can't bury them all at once, so he expects to rebury them in the same groups or clusters that came out of the ground, so that they would retain their afterlife associations.

He knows he can't afford to dig individual graves--initial estimates have placed the cost of reburial at $50 to $200 per body, and the Forest Service has not yet allocated any monies at all for doing so. So Wood wonders how to retain a solemn and spiritual service when the bodies will be placed in mass-grave trenches dug by backhoes. Can they remain in their current cardboard boxes? One of the tribes suggested that perhaps the bodies could be stacked two-deep.

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