Desecration: Unearthed Native Burial Site Causes Uproar
The summer sky drizzles rain as Arden Kucate and Theresa Pasqual drive toward a nondescript field in eastern Arizona. On this overcast day in August, they are heading to a place their ancestors called home centuries ago.
There, an adobe compound, known as Amity Pueblo, toppled by time, is a mound of rubble disguised by a carpet of shrubs and grass.
When they arrive, Pasqual navigates her truck just a few feet past an opening in the feeble fence surrounding the area when Kucate abruptly tells her to stop.
New Times cover story
He spots a bone in their path.
Kucate and Pasqual slide out of the pickup, stunned into silence as they gaze upon not just that bone but thousands of shattered bones and artifacts strewn across acres.
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"It was like walking a coastal beach and seeing the different seashells scattered on the sand," Pasqual recalls. "The whiteness of the bones was in clear contrast to the rich, brown soil."
Bones — including skulls, ribs, femurs, jaws, and fingers — from at least 10 ancient adults and adolescents were ripped from their graves, broken and scattered by bulldozers and backhoes. The devastation occurred in late April 2011 when the Arizona Game and Fish Department started construction on a public fishing pond.
When Kucate and Pasqual see some of the remains in piles of dirt scooped out of the ground, disbelief clashes with a welling sense of sorrow.
"It was so sad looking at all the remains, lying there," remembers Kucate, head tribal councilman for the Pueblo of Zuni.
He and Pasqual come upon a broken, octagon-shape tablet. They look around for the rest of its pieces but find none. Kucate wonders what happened to them, suspicious that looters already may have claimed remnants of his ancestors and priceless shards of pottery and jewelry, some of which may date back to 900 A.D.
"I don't think anyone was prepared for what we saw or for the emotions that we felt," relates Pasqual, a member of the Acoma tribe, and the Indian community's historic preservation officer. "It was quiet, very quiet, on that field."
The pair are part of a 10-member convoy of representatives from several tribes — the Zuni, the Hopi, the Navajo Nation, and the Acoma — who arrive in the town of Eagar on this gloomy day to examine the violated burial site. They are accompanied by 14 state and federal officials.
As the pair continue to survey the devastation, they choke back anger and frustration. A single thought races through their minds: How could this have happened?
One colossal misstep after another by government agencies transformed what was planned to be a two-acre family fishing pond in a tiny Apache County town into a swath of sprawling desecration.
It started with Arizona Game and Fish officials relying on an archaeologist who was not officially certified to survey the land for potential historic properties and offer advice during construction. They allowed unsupervised high school students to operate heavy earth-moving machinery over more than nine acres — just yards away from sacred Amity Pueblo. Even when workers saw bones and artifacts erupting from the ground, state officials tell New Times, the archaeologist gave them the okay to keep going.
Construction started on April 27, 2011, and wasn't halted until May 6. During that time, human remains and artifacts were dispersed over nine acres of land.
"We should have known better, but we didn't," admits Arizona Game and Fish Deputy Director Gary Hovatter.
He and other officials compounded the damage by giving short shrift to laws that are supposed to protect historic homes and human remains of the first nations to occupy what has become the United States.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which agreed to pay for part of the now-canceled pond project, failed to comply with a federal law that, in part, requires it to examine work areas for precious remnants of history before digging begins. If there's the potential to encounter such artifacts, agency officials legally are obligated to come up with a plan to minimize damage and consult with interested parties — in this case, surrounding Indian tribes.
Nearly two years after the fact, Steve Robertson, chief of Wildlife and Sports Fish Restoration, a program within Fish and Wildlife, says federal officials are "working with Arizona Game and Fish and hoping to engage the tribes."
There has been one meeting, in August at the Trail Riders Restaurant in Eagar, and a few letters exchanged, but little has been accomplished.
Instead, the discussion has been marked by disagreement over what steps should be taken first. And who's going to pay for them. Fingers have been pointed, and the tribes feel that state and federal officials don't fully appreciate the spiritual connection between the prehistoric bones and area tribes, including the Zuni and Acoma, each with reservations in New Mexico and ancestors who dwelt in what is now Arizona.
Some of the bones, collected improperly, are piled in a box stored in an Eagar Town Hall office. The rest, visible on the surface of the site, were slated for collection, but two of the four tribes objected that the proposed plan didn't go far enough. Zuni and Hopi tribal leaders wanted piles of dirt sifted so all the bones could be collected. Since such a plan wasn't under official consideration during the single meeting, everything stalled.
Despite state and federal officials' bluster about righting the wrongs done to the tribes with the desecration, their forefathers' bones remain tangled in bureaucracy, exposed to looters and erosion as winter is set to arrive.
Zuni leaders believe the spirits of the unearthed are now troubled and will continue to be until they are repatriated with "Mother Earth."
Says Cornell Tsalate, a medicine man and high-ranking member of the tribe's religious hierarchy, "In our way, there are still connections to our ancestors who lived [in Amity Pueblo]. These individuals are not resting in peace."
It's a miracle that the Zuni people weren't extinguished from the Southwestern landscape, says Octavius Seowtewa, leader of the Galaxy Fraternity, one of the tribe's secret medicine societies.
"The first Spanish explorers came here and really put the Zuni in a situation where we almost lost our culture," he says. "Our religious ceremonies and practices were impeded by . . . the invaders. Some of our sacred ceremonies had to go underground to protect what we had."
About 7,000 tribal members live in Pueblo of Zuni, 35 miles south of Gallup, New Mexico. It's a community of peaceful, hardworking people. The landscape contains modest homes interspersed with others worn badly by time and poverty. There are only a few eateries, including one pizzeria, in town, as well as retail shops that feature the authentic work of Indian artists — paintings, stone carvings, woven baskets, bead work, and silver and turquoise jewelry. The surrounding desert landscape is dotted by sacred, colorful mesas.
Tribal leaders and various historical accounts suggest that the Zuni were the first native people visited by the Spaniards in 1539. The newcomers forced the Indians to supply them with "corn, women, and labor and [were] punished harshly for practicing their religion," according to the Native American Encyclopedia by Barry M. Pritzker.
The Zuni are, after thousands of years, still one of the most traditional of the pueblo tribes. They have maintained the integrity of their unique and isolated language — save for a few words borrowed from other tribes — for at least 7,000 years. And their spiritual and religious practices, which involve kachina spirits, are a way of life.
None of the outsiders who settled on their land could stymie the "Zuni Way," a belief system that for centuries has been anchored to the sanctity of ancestors.
"What's happened [at Amity Pueblo] is very detrimental for the tribe, from a cultural perspective, because directly north of where this desecration occurred, linked through the Little Colorado River, is a place we know as Zuni Heaven," Arden Kucate says. "It's a very sacred place. When we come to our end-of-life path, that's where we go. Our ancestors have been connected to it since time immemorial."
Zuni religious leaders make a four-day, 60-mile trek on foot or horseback every four years to Zuni Heaven. Congregants follow, but only to a point. No one but those with "high authority" may go up into the mountain.
Prayers and songs are offered at this "gateway of spirituality" to achieve balance with the Earth — they pray for rain, plentiful harvests, long lives, and prosperity. And not just for the Zuni, but for the entire world, Kucate says.
The spirits, too, are invited.
When a member of the Zuni dies, the body remains at home for a day and is washed and dressed by female relatives. When the body is buried, clothes, blankets, and other items are interred with it for the afterlife journey.
The spirit remains in the home for four days before blowing out an open door and finding an eternal home in one of several places, including Zuni Heaven.
"Once the individual is in the ground, prayers are said. And when they dig a grave, it's not just a grave — it's their house for life, the beyond life," Kucate says. "If the grave is disturbed, it means the individual is disturbed from where he or she was sent to meet with . . . ancestors."
Such disruptions can lead to paranormal sightings, the return of spirits, and unexplained phenomena, tribal members say. And the Zuni have no prayers for reburying someone excavated from the ground.
"When things like this happen," Kucate says, "it really hurts us because no one even asked [what we thought] until after they've done the damage. It's leaving us natives out of our own aboriginal lands."
That sentiment is all too common among Indian tribes across the country. Like most native Americans, the Zuni tried to defend their land, along with their traditional ways. They participated in the Pueblo Revolt in 1680, driving the Spanish settlers out of the region. But facing raids from surrounding Apache, Hopi, and Navajo, they joined forces with the Spanish militia, Mexican troops, and, later, the U.S. Army.
Despite alliances with the United States in battle, the Zuni lost most of their tribal lands to American colonization. When the United States established official boundaries of the Zuni reservation in 1877, it encompassed less than 3 percent of the 15 million acres of the tribe's aboriginal lands.
In 1978, Congress passed a law allowing the Zuni to sue the federal government for taking tribal land without compensation. The Zuni filed several claims, and it wasn't until 1990 that President George H.W. Bush signed a law to settle the claims for $25 million.
Settling the disaster at Amity Pueblo also may take years, says Game and Fish Deputy Director Hovatter, the only state or federal official in this debacle who accepts culpability.
He says he wants to reach an agreement but is hamstrung because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the entity that legally must engage in "government-to-government consultation" with sovereign Indian nations.
Hovatter says it's the state's "intention to try to find a way to return the remains we found back to that location. That's the best we're going to be able to do. I have tried to look everybody in the eye and tell them that we apologize."
Zuni Governor Arlen Quetawki, in a September 25 letter, questioned the sincerity of apologies to his people. He told state and federal officials that anything less than gathering and replacing all human remains is "insulting to the Zuni people because it trivializes our expressed concerns about the desecration of our ancestors' graves and the Zuni people's relationship to the spiritual realm."
Hovatter says plucking only what bones were visible on the site's surface never was intended as a final solution — it was just an initial step.
"It had been agreed [during an August 13 meeting] that before going to that level of detail — sifting through dirt piles — there needed to be" a consultation between the feds and the tribes because there wasn't unanimity about whether sifting all the dirt needed to be done, he says.
For Quetawki, the tribe's position "on this issue is non-negotiable."
Hovatter responded on October 4, telling the governor that a plan for fetching the surface bones "reflects the decision" of all participants at the Eagar consultation meeting as "an initial, tangible action" toward remediation.
"The fact that the situation on the ground has not changed is not this department's fault," he says. "It's our fault that the situation exists in the first place. I've never stepped back from taking responsibility . . . but the Zuni changed their mind. There was no agreement in that room for what the Zuni expected to be done. Unless we get all the tribes and players on the same page, there is no way for us to proceed."
Why not just call the other tribes to see whether they concur with the Zuni?
"I can't be a substitute for the federal government," Hovatter says.
Zuni and Acoma tribal officials tell New Times that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuses to understand the tribes' concerns. Which doesn't mean the federal agency has been silent on the issue. It has worked hard to shift blame — to insist that other agencies must bear the legal and financial costs of the desert desecration.
The fishing pond and the ancient Indian ruins were doomed from the beginning.
All the players involved knew that Amity Pueblo was about 100 feet from the angling spot that Arizona Game and Fish wanted to create. But knowing this did not trigger compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act.
Section 106 of the law requires federal officials to examine project sites for potential cultural and historic items and to consult with interested parties if it's suspected that treasures might be damaged. The feds are supposed to come up with a "what if" plan in case they run into something significant — graves, for example.
And it all should happen before any ground is broken.
Instead, the feds informally passed responsibility to the state Game and Fish Department, which in turn passed it to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that was lending its archaeologist to the project.
Two years ago, none of the government officials involved wrote agreements — as required by law — about who would be responsible for following through on the federal preservation law. Yet, today, they have written several exchanges about who is to blame.
Benjamin Tuggle, federal Fish and Wildlife regional director, admits only to a "procedural" error by his agency for passing the buck on federal preservation compliance. But, he wrote in an October 9 letter, the NRCS "bears some, if not all, legal and financial responsibility."
He criticized the archaeologist employed.
"The record indicates that the NRCS archaeologist had to have seen the damage caused, [but] the Arizona State Historic Preservation Office was not contacted, and [the] project was not halted when the first artifacts were found based on the advice given by NRCS," he wrote.
Tuggle also blamed the State Preservation Office for failing to research the area before it signed off on the project. If it had, he writes, it would have realized that "historic properties would be affected, and subsequent damages to the Amity Pueblo . . . would never had occurred."
State Historic Preservation deputy officer Ann Howard fired back with a letter on October 24: "It is not the responsibility of the SHPO to conduct background research, and we believe [Tuggle] inaccurately tries to cast blame on our office."
Howard noted that her office "did not approve any design plans for pond construction." She said the preservation office's representative, compliance specialist James Cogswell, told the federal archaeologist and state Game and Fish authorities that "pond construction [must be] monitored by a [qualified] archaeologist" and that both representatives agreed.
But that isn't what happened on the ground.
In February 2011, Miles Gilbert, the NRCS archaeologist, and Kelly Meyer, a fish specialist with state Game and Fish, went out to survey the land just north of Amity Pueblo.
The survey was supposed to be conducted by specially certified archaeologists. Neither man was specially certified. In his report, Gilbert submitted that no historical properties would be affected by the project and noted that construction would avoid the Amity Pueblo.
The State Historic Preservation Office signed off on Gilbert's findings.
Hovatter says the archaeologist wasn't certified to work on the project and that — in violation of state law — neither Game and Fish nor the federal NRCS obtained a permit from the Arizona State Museum before sending an archaeologist to root around on state-owned land.
Hovatter disputes that his agency's fish specialist, Meyer, played a role in the cultural survey. A field report and a letter submitted to the Historic Preservation Office notes that he did assist Gilbert in field work that involves scanning the ground for signs of history or clues of cultural value.
It appears to be yet another error, one that helps explain how the ill-fated project veered so far off course.
Hovatter bemoans a lack of guidance from the State Historic Preservation Office. He says his agency submitted paperwork to officials there, and preservation authorities didn't "review the name of the [federal] archaeologist we submitted" against the list of certified archaeologists.
"If they had, we would have stopped and gotten a qualified archaeologist," he says. "We submitted our documentation, they reviewed it, and they said we were good to go. [That's] supposed to mean something."
Keisha Morten, director of the federal NRCS in Arizona, blames her office's failure to obtain an archaeological-review permit on Game and Fish's not telling NRCS that the federal archaeologist would be working on state-owned land. She also defends her archaeologist's qualifications to perform cultural-review work, even though he isn't on the state's list of approved archaeologists.
Those were the first in a smattering of government failures that Zuni Governor Quetawki doesn't understand.
"What is unclear is how 9.1 acres of land could be disturbed . . . without backhoe operators' immediately recognizing the importance of what they were disturbing," he wrote on June 10 to the Arizona State Museum. "It suggests that someone . . . had knowledge of the ongoing disturbance and either chose to ignore it or consciously made a decision to authorize a continued disturbance."
Lending to the problem in the field, Quetawki says, was that state Game and Fish wanted to get the project done for "next to nothing." It contracted with the Northern Arizona Vocational Institute of Technology to provide students to run the heavy machinery. When the students started digging on April 27, 2011, according to state and federal correspondence, there wasn't an archaeologist or anyone from Game and Fish on site.
For two days, the workers were unsupervised. Equipment started exposing artifacts and human bone fragments, but the young operators kept going. They scraped vegetation and topsoil from a nine-acre swath — digging more than six feet deep in the proposed pond's western end and about four feet deep in its eastern end. When the NRCS archaeologist visited the site, he waved them on, believing that the bones and artifacts emerging were simply bits of previously disturbed materials, according to Hovatter. Construction activity continued under fish specialist Meyer.
Some records suggest that archaeologist Gilbert was on site at least three times and advised that the work could continue — despite the obvious ribbons of white bones swirling through the dirt. But Keisha Morten, Gilbert's boss, says he made only a single visit to the site, on May 2, and advised workers to stop construction. She says it was state officials who didn't follow her archaeologist's recommendation.
But Hovatter says it was his employee, Meyer, who decided that it was too much — the endless churning of artifacts and human bone out of the ground. He disregarded the archaeologist's opinion, Hovatter says, and called his supervisors at Game and Fish, who halted construction.
Officials' inability to agree on facts — who conducted the cultural survey, how many times the archaeologist visited the site, what advice he gave, and who stopped the project — doesn't bode well for the Indian tribes who want to resolve the emotionally charged situation.
The officials' posturing also suggests that each may be trying to minimize his or her particular agency's legal and financial liability.
It's clear that at the first sight of bone or native pottery, the workers were legally required to stop and notify the Arizona State Museum, which administers Arizona's Antiquities Act, a law meant to preserve the state's heritage.
Instead, the desecration of the ancient burial site went on over a 10-day period.
Excavation ended up going within the artificial 100-foot barrier that workers were supposed to stay outside to protect Amity Pueblo. And, at some point, bones were picked up from the construction site, put in a box, and taken to the Eagar Town Hall, where they remain. Their locations weren't cataloged, complicating approved archaeologists' ability to return them to their rightful graves.
When the dust settled and the workers were cleared from the fields, Arizona Game and Fish hired Northland Research, a Tempe-based team of archaeological and environmental consultants, to assess the damage and establish detailed records of the area.
Northland's 58-page report, published in April, reveals grim details about the activity around Amity Pueblo.
"Tens of thousands of artifacts were visible on the surface, [including] ceramics, flaked stone, shell, and faunal bone," according to the Northland report. "Human bone was also visible on the surface throughout all of the disturbed areas."
Inspection of just the surfaces of the dirt piles on the construction site "revealed . . . hundreds to thousands of artifacts, as well as numerous fragments of human bone."
The report went on: "It is clear that many additional artifacts and bones are located within these piles."
The Northland archaeologists focused on larger pieces of human bone and documented 46 pieces representing prehistoric burials in shallow graves from at least three individuals, perhaps four. They also located at least six other potential graves in the disturbed area.
While some skeletons were mostly intact, others were "more heavily disturbed and, in fact, may have been entirely removed from their original burial locations and redeposited" during excavation.
"There is a strong likelihood that more than these 10 burials" have been disturbed.
It's hardly Arizona's prescription for how to deal with human remains.
Todd Pitezel, the State Museum's assistant curator of archaeology, says the law requires that human remains be treated with dignity and respect.
"In my opinion, they're not being treated with dignity and respect [in this situation]," he says. "This is a spiritual matter for [the tribes]. It's pretty disturbing. And we're just sitting here."
Had state and federal laws been followed, the incident at Amity Pueblo never would have happened, says Pitezel, who handles repatriation of human remains for the museum.
"They didn't follow the laws, and now it's a disaster," he says.
He says there isn't much his office can do.
"According to the federal process, [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife Services is obligated to respond to the tribal letters and their wishes," he says. "And that's what we're waiting on. Whether they do something, it remains to be seen."
Kurt Dongoske, principal investigator and preservation officer for the Zuni, says his impression is that state and federal government representatives are "hoping, if the tribes don't make any more waves, this will go away . . . and they won't have to spend a dime."
Federal officials sent a letter on September 14 to the Zuni and the other tribes involved, asking for input on a work plan that Governor Quetawki would denounce just a few weeks later. He hasn't heard from them since.
"Their proposed fix is not to our standards," he tells New Times. "Deal appropriately with this, that's what we're asking . . . The damage has already been done. Now, how can we work together to fix it?"
Charna Lefton, spokeswoman for Fish and Wildlife, says the federal agency isn't to blame for all the time that has elapsed. She says the discovery of the human remains and artifacts happened in May 2011 but that Fish and Wildlife was "only notified" last April — nearly a year later.
However, a timeline created by her own agency contradicts Lefton's claim:
"August 18, 2011. FWS received an e-mail update from [Arizona Game and Fish.] This update stated that archaeologist issues had been resolved. [We] were unaware that archaeological issues existed prior to . . . receipt of this e-mail."
If federal Fish and Wildlife received an "update" in August 2011, it stands to reason that some other notification was made before that.
When pressed about the discrepancy, Stephen Robertson, chief of the program under Fish and Wildlife that issued Arizona the grant for the pond, says his office "had no idea of the nature or extent of those issues, and we believed that they were minor in nature and had been resolved."
He says it wasn't until April that he "became aware of the gravity and extent of the disturbance."
Howard says her agency — the State Historic Preservation Office — believes it's "long past time for finger-pointing and blame-shifting to have ended in this process. It is our opinion that continuing down this road can only delay the process and further antagonize those who are involved."
Pitezel agrees that the internal bickering "among parties as to proper federal procedure is delaying tribal requests that the disturbed human remains be dealt with immediately."
Some Zuni talk about lawsuits. Quetawki talks about hosting a "sacred sites summit" with state and federal officials about consulting with tribes on the front end, instead of further straining relationships by waiting until damage is done.
"We want to stress that those agencies who have these types of projects work with tribes," Quetawki says. "Unfortunately, the mentality is, 'We can put them aside and move on.'"
But if history is any indication, the Zuni can stand the test of time.
"We are Zuni. We do not disappear. We are still here," says medicine man Cornell Tsalate. "The [state and U.S. agencies] make and break their own rules. It's a shame . . . they think they have a right to do that, but in reality, they will have to suffer the consequences."
In a matter-of-fact tone, he warns, "In our way, if you do something wrong, the spirits might not be after you, but they will come to your family, your relatives, the people you love the most, and make it even."
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