A Grave Error

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

In Arizona, every time you stick a shovel in the ground, you run the risk of being an accidental archaeologist. Long before the Spanish explored the Southwest, prehistoric Indian tribes flourished here, and the remains of those civilizations--including human remains--lie close to the surface.

In order to protect that history, and especially to protect the religious beliefs of Native Americans and the graves of their ancestors, numerous state and federal laws and procedures have to be followed before excavating on state and federal lands. Few public agencies dare start moving earth until those rules are followed, for fear of some tribe or other agency swooping down, stopping work and costing time and money.

Nonetheless, in October 1996, the San Carlos Irrigation Project (SCIP), a power and water utility owned by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, used earthmoving equipment in a vacant lot in Coolidge, disturbing human remains, and scattering bone fragments and potsherds on the ground. The foreman in charge of the utility and of the destruction claims he knew nothing about what lay beneath the ground, even though the field in question is a well-known archaeological site, literally across the street from Casa Grande National Monument, the oldest federal archaeological preserve in the United States.

The SCIP employees completely sidestepped the permitting processes set out in the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act before digging. According to an assistant attorney general from the Tohono O'odham Indian Nation, the agency violated the Archaeological Resource Protection Act, though until further investigation, he can't say whether it committed criminal or civil violations.

Now, two and a half years later, weeds have nearly covered the torn-up earth, but no legal action has been taken by the tribes whose burial grounds were desecrated. And archaeologists who work for other government agencies are wondering how the Bureau of Indian Affairs, of all government entities, got away with such a blatant violation of federal law.

Ironically, the BIA hides behind the same law in refusing to divulge any of the details of the event. A "resource's location and/or character should be restricted," the law says, if "the resource has already been damaged by looting or vandalism, and there is reason to believe that such damage would recur."

Apparently, the BIA interprets that rule to extend to damage it caused itself. No BIA spokesperson would return calls to New Times, and the agency only responded to Freedom of Information requests after nearly two months and repeated calls from an attorney. Then, the responses were so heavily redacted as to be funny--the cover sheet from a fax but not the fax itself; the title page, table of contents and reference page from a damage assessment, but not the text in between; pages of notes covered in black ink to mask their contents. The BIA's cover letters asked New Times to refer further questions to a Freedom of Information officer, who wouldn't return phone calls.

The Gila River Indian Community, which as the ancestral tribe closest to the damage site is supposed to take the lead in any legal action against the BIA, has not filed suit or insisted on an investigation. Members of the Gila River Community also won't return phone calls about the incident.

"The rest of us would not do something like this," says J. Scott Wood, forest archaeologist for the Tonto National Forest. "If it had been some agency other than the BIA, it probably would have evoked a much different response."

The BIA's San Carlos Irrigation Project provides electrical power and irrigation water for the Gila River Indian Community, and it works out of a modest plant off State Route 287 in Coolidge. In the last few years, SCIP purchased a farmer's field right next to its plant with the intention of eventually expanding its facilities. Both properties sit catty-cornered across Route 287 from Casa Grande National Monument, which was designated an archaeological preserve in 1892.

From about A.D. 700 until 1400, the region was home to a Hohokam civilization, and its archaeology extends far beyond the boundaries of the national monument. The SCIP field is known as the "Horvath site," after the former owners of the farm from whom SCIP bought the property.

In early October 1996, contract archaeologists for the Arizona Department of Transportation had just finished initial archaeological testing along one side of the property and were about to start data collection so that they could widen Route 287.

On October 4, 1996, a SCIP secretary's car was rear-ended as she attempted to make a left turn into the SCIP property from busy Route 287. Her boss, Ralph Esquerra, decided to cut a new entrance road into the facility from a cross street beyond the Horvath site. And on October 14, without going through any of the lengthy permitting procedures needed to do work on federal lands eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, he brought earthmoving equipment to the property.

One machine, called a "belly scraper," scoured the ground near the planned ADOT right-of-way, pulling up fill to be spread and compacted on the actual road under construction.

On October 17, Doug Craig, who worked for Northland Research Inc., the firm doing archaeological consultation for ADOT, drove by and saw machines tearing up the site. The next day, Garry Cantley, a BIA archaeologist, surveyed the site. Craig was asked to assess the damage. (Cantley would not return phone calls, and Craig, who now works for the Gila River Indian Community, refused to comment.)

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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