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.

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.

See a slideshow to accompany this story.

"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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo