A Grave Error

The Bureau of Indian Affairs stonewalls its desecration of a prehistoric Native American burial site

Ralph Esquerra, the SCIP project engineer, pleads ignorance.
"I was not aware that it was part of any site. I was aware that there were some archaeological surveys being conducted on it as part of a State of Arizona highway-construction project," he tells New Times.

"I was not aware there was actually anything underneath there."
But, Esquerra continues, his subordinate, Carl Christiansen, assured him that he had received "verbal clearance" from ADOT archaeologists. And then when the earthmoving equipment showed up on the site, Esquerra claims he asked again to make sure that all environmental concerns were dealt with, and again he was assured they were.

"I didn't see any paperwork," Esquerra says, and he claims he was not on the property when the actual work took place. He would not allow his employees to speak to New Times to confirm his statements.

But according to Bettina Rosenberg, historic preservation coordinator for ADOT, her agency was not asked anything about what was in the ground.

"All they had to do was ask any number of us the question, 'Are you done?' Simple as that," Rosenberg says. "They could have asked Northland, they could have asked me, they could have asked anybody. Our district people out there kept their eye on it, too, because it's a sensitive area; and to my knowledge, nobody at ADOT was asked. And they went ahead out there."

Then the stonewalling began. ADOT had intended to buy part of the Horvath site, but instead had to redesign its project to go around. Rosenberg says SCIP would not negotiate.

In May 1997 and October 1998, SCIP held meetings with representatives of the various Indian tribes who claim descendance from the Hohokam to brief them on the damage caused by the earth-moving.

According to notes taken by one participant at the second meeting (who asked not to be identified for fear of losing a job), the damage was extensive.

"Using heavy machinery, SCIP employees damaged or destroyed at least 33 prehistoric features, including five compound walls, six pit structures, 14 pits, five human cremations, one inhumation [a burial] and two canals," the notes say. "It is probable that much more was destroyed, but there is no way to know it at this point. Five more cremations and one inhumation were left exposed and were later excavated and repatriated to Gila River Indian Community."

The notes quoted a BIA archaeologist as saying, "SCIP did not do NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act procedures], did not do NHPA [National Historic Preservation Act procedures]. It's as bad as it seems."

Then, according to the notes, he said it was possible that as many as 30 burials were scraped up and compacted into the road under construction.

At that second meeting, the tribes demanded to be taken to the site, where they encountered Esquerra.

Beverly Jones of the Gila River Indian Community says, "We asked him, 'Who gave you permission to dig up and disturb our Hohokam founts?' And he said, 'this guy said and this guy said,' and they just went on and on down the line."

What happens next?
All the parties involved have discussed turning the property over to a federal trust on behalf of the Gila River Community. They agreed to put a fence around the field and went through the appropriate processes to do so. And SCIP followed procedure to build itself a new driveway, clear of the Horvath site.

A quick walk on the property in January turned up bone fragments, painted and unpainted potsherds, a ground stone, and a seashell that had been pierced as if to hang it from a bracelet or a necklace, all lying on the surface of the aborted road.

The fence still has not been built.
Charges or lawsuits would have to come from the Gila River Indian Community. Jonathan Jantzen, assistant attorney for the nearby Tohono O'odham Nation, thinks that internal politics at Gila River has kept that tribe from moving forward on the case.

"There are no lawsuits planned," Jantzen says.
"We've always thought there was the possibility of criminal intent here, but the investigation to determine that has never been done or completed," he continues. "So none of us knows. I wish I knew."

Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address: mkiefer@newtimes.com

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