Hester, a self-styled adventurer, amateur archaeologist and the most notorious of Arizona's pot hunters--those who excavate long-abandoned Indian villages and burial sites for knowledge, fun and profit--is familiar with the subject. Digging from the ground what is left behind by the dead is his business. He listened carefully to the man on the phone, who identified himself as a Hopi Indian.
"You have disturbed the graves of my ancestors. How about if I dig up your grandparents?" the Hopi asked.
Hester laughed. He had heard that one before. Ever since novelist Tony Hillerman had written in his series of Native American mysteries about a bitter Indian activist who dug up the remains of a museum curator's grandparents and mailed them to her, threatening the exhumation of pot hunters' relatives had become a standard intimidation technique.
"They're buried in Williams and Ashfork," Hester replied flippantly.
"Go for it."
There was silence for a moment. And then came a more ominous warning.
"Maasaw is watching you, Hester," he said.
Maasaw, the Hopi god of death, the guardian of the Fourth World, was waiting for the pot hunter. His final day of judgment was approaching.
Hester snorts, recalling the threat. "I immediately thought about it and realized that since Maasaw teaches people about death, we probably have a lot in common.
"So I got serious and told the guy, `Man, I am Maasaw.'"
Sitting in his rustic, book-lined Camp Verde office, surrounded by Indian pottery and artifacts he has taken from more than 100 archaeological sites around the state, Hester looks more like Arizona's version of Indiana Jones than a Hopi deity. He has lively, piercing blue eyes and graying hair, which he often ties back into a ponytail. His weathered, angular face, boots, blue jeans and strutting, frontier-style cockiness mark him as a man who could fit easily in another age--as a cavalry scout, cowboy or gambler. Or, perhaps, an outlaw.
According to federal law-enforcement officials and state preservationists, that MD120 Col 1, Depth P54.04 I9.06 is exactly what Hester is--the Southwest's number one archaeological outlaw, the King of the Pot Hunters. It is a badge he has worn with a measure of pride for more than twenty years, as he has dug, bought and sold Indian artifacts in northern and central Arizona in relative anonymity, dealing only with a shadowy network of buyers and sellers--and making a healthy living in the process.
But now Hester is on the front line of a complex political battle with roots stretching literally under our feet. All across Arizona, remnants of past and present Native American civilizations are buried in the soil, and the question of who has the right to excavate the human remains, pots and other ancient artifacts has sparked a conflict with wide-ranging scientific, religious, financial and, some say, constitutional implications.
To the tribes of Arizona Native Americans, pot hunters like Hester are contemptible grave robbers, looting and desecrating the sacred resting places of ancient ancestors for the filthy lucre the pottery buried with the dead will produce. Loris Minkler, an assistant to the Hopi tribal chairman, says pot hunters are "rapists, plain and simple."
"They eliminate a significant part of our past," she says. "Ninety percent of the archaeological sites in Arizona have been damaged by these destroyers."
State preservationists, acting as Indian advocates, agree. While it has been illegal to dig for artifacts on state and federal land for years, only this summer did the Hopi tribe, working with the state, manage to push through the Arizona State Legislature a bill making it a felony for pot hunters intentionally to disturb burial sites on private property without first notifying the state museum director, who reserves the right to excavate--and confiscate--all the valuable burial artifacts on-site in the name of the Indians.
To Hester and others like him, who view themselves not as grave robbers but as serious businesspeople and amateur scientists, the law threatens to take away their avocation and livelihood. Joined by rural Arizonans who see the bill as a direct infringement on the sanctity of private property, Hester has pledged to challenge the measure by excavating a site he owns in the Verde Valley--and daring the state to stop him.
The battle over bones in Arizona, pitting fundamentally different concepts of ownership and ancestry against one Col 3, Depth P54.10 I9.14 private ranch land on state property; and although they claimed they had merely made a mistake in determining the rancher's boundaries and were in possession of only twelve small pottery shards, the four were charged with knowingly excavating a state archaeological site, collecting artifacts without a permit, criminal damage and conspiracy. One of the pot hunters pleaded guilty to the charges and served six months in jail. After years of sporadic litigation, Hester arranged a deal with prosecutors in 1986 and pleaded no contest to excavating the site, for which he received two years' probation, a $750 fine and was ordered to pay $1,000 in restitution.
"Over a three-year period, the whole thing cost me $73,000 to fight," Hester says, "and a lot of lost business, time and opportunities. People in my business are a very private people, we don't like interference. This was my first real signal that the government was getting out of control. So, for me, what I'm doing now is social retribution, or revenge, for what government interference has done to me."
At first, revenge meant waging an organized campaign against Senate Bill 1412, titled the Indian Burial Protection Act. Passed in July, the new law sets up a system of procedures for dealing with remains and funerary objects found on private property. Under the law, if a landowner discovers a burial site, he is required to notify the state museum director. The state then has ten days to inspect the site and excavate it, in conjunction with the tribe that has a cultural affiliation with the Indians who inhabited the area. The remains and objects, many of them worth hundreds or thousands of dollars, will be confiscated and repatriated to the tribes, presumably for reburial. In particular, this provision has drawn howls of protest from collectors, dealers and private-property advocates.
If a landowner intentionally disturbs the burials and keeps or sells the pots and other artifacts he finds, he can be charged with a Class 5 felony--and could face up to two years in prison.
Hester led a small group of pot hunters and rural Arizonans concerned about private-property rights in writing letters and lobbying through legislative channels last summer to try to block passage of the bill. Although they failed, the war of words goes on.
"I've been doing this for twenty years, and I need to fight for our rights," he says. "Public opinion will be on our side once The issue isn't the bones anyway, he says. It is the fate of valuable artifacts that happen to accompany the human remains. For Hester, it is a simple question of capitalism.
"Why are they going to take those items with great scientific and monetary value and bury them back in the ground?" Hester asks. "Either they will stay there, and that would be a great waste, a great loss for the scientific and artistic community, or they'll just be dug up again by a tribal member or somebody else who will sell them. They'll be back on the market in weeks. So why not just leave them with their rightful owner?
"It's what I told senators and representatives, the press, everybody. If I find stuff on my property," he says, "then it's mine because I bought it. It's on my land. Enough said."
In addition to violating property rights of collectors, Hester says, the taxpayers will be forced to pay for the costly excavations made by the state on private lands; excavations that could run into thousands of dollars.
Raymond Thompson, the director of the Arizona State Museum, to whom diggers must report burial discoveries, admits that if the state had to deal with "three or four discoveries a month, it could bankrupt the museum."
"Unfortunately," Thompson says, "the legislature passed this bill without appropriating any funds for it. We will do the best we can, but we are not looking at a friendly situation as far as making this thing work."
The museum has processed only one site since the law passed in July, and in that case (where a Prescott developer struck burialground while installing a water line), the developer agreed to foot the bill for the excavation. The remains uncovered will be returned to the Yavapai Indians for reburial.
Instead of turning the items over to the state or tribes, Hester suggests a compromise--a law stating that the government will impose a small tax on the excavated items, and that private- property owners be required to notify the state and register artifacts so that they can be studied if they are scientifically significant. "That way," he says, "we maintain ownership over what is rightfully ours and yet the items aren't kept secret out of fear they will be taken away."
But the trend, on both the state and national levels, is not aimed toward compromise. The federal government turned up the heat on pot-hunting investigations in 1979, after the passage of the Archaeological Protection Act, which toughened prohibitions against excavating on government land. The forest service, DPS and the state Attorney General's Office coordinated a year-long "sting" operation in 1987 aimed at eliminating more than a dozen artifact dealers, by having undercover agents offer objects borrowed from state museums for sale--valuable artifacts the dealers would recognize immediately as stolen. Also part of the escalation, Hester charges, officers monitored his mail and tapped his phone. Paranoia? Maybe. But officials admit privately that they compiled a file on Hester "the size of several New York phone books," with an eye toward convicting him of grave-desecration. The campaign against him, Hester alleges, also included direct threats from his nemesis Allaire.
"I saw [Allaire] outside a courtroom after my bust," Hester says, "and as we were standing by the elevator he said, `I'm going to get you, Hester.' Now, if I had said that, I would have been arrested for threatening a federal agent." Hester says he remains wary of Allaire, whose name he singsongs with bitterness and sarcasm, and whose picture he keeps on a bulletin board in his office. "It helps me to remember that the government would take me out if they could," he says.
The 1983 bust wasn't Hester's first brush with the law. Allaire says Hester's name first caught the eye of authorities in the late 1970s, when he was subpoenaed to testify in Chicago about a stolen Hopi mask that he had allegedly brokered. He was granted immunity in the Chicago case in return for his testimony, but federal officials took notice, and identified him as a leading artifact scavenger.
Now a U.S. Customs agent, Allaire chased pot hunters like Hester for three years, bringing nearly fifty of them to justice. ("We never lost a case," he says.) Allaire blames a small hard-core circle of professional pot hunters for "99.9 percent of all the damage done to archaeological sites in this state."
"Guys like Hester have the same effect as a big Mixmaster on these sites," Allaire says. "They come in with their dozers and mix up the various strata, turning the ruins into a jumbled mess, just for the pots and stuff. Probably less than 100 guys are responsible for all that damage.
"I don't view these guys as amateur archaeologists. That would be like being an amateur doctor, working on people once in a while for the fun of it."
After his 1983 bust, Hester says he "got more careful, fast." He maintains he no longer digs on state land, and will only broker artifacts he is confident were not stolen from government park land or tribes. The outlaw, he says, has gone legitimate, seeking to act as a spokesperson for the "industry." He has sold most of his collection and inventory to pay for a possible upcoming legal challenge to the state law and to finance a publicity campaign to educate the public about private pot hunting.
"Only 15 percent of the land in this state is private property," he says. "The state should take care of what they've got before messing with my land. Irresponsible pot hunting just isn't a problem anymore, anyway. The only people left after the laws got so tough are people like me, who do it carefully and professionally.
"It's really a question of who owns the past. I say we all do. It's not logically or morally right to cut off science. If you rebury stuff, you can't get that information back. And it's not right to cut off my business, either."
"THESE THINGS AREN'T knickknacks," Minkler of the Hopi tribe, says. "They are sacred, precious artifacts. And the very idea of stirring the remains just to get the pots buried with them is obviously grave robbing--whether they're on private property or not."
Minkler and the Hopis began the drive for state action to protect private sites after more than 200 residents of Cornville, a tiny hamlet just south of Sedona, protested a developer's plans to excavate a 100-room, 800-year-old Sinagua Indian ruin on Sugarloaf Mountain. The developer, who had leased the site from its owner for exploration, backed off on plans to use a bulldozer and backhoe on the property to retrieve artifacts.
It's a common scenario, according to Shereen Lerner, a preservation officer with the state historical preservation office. The forest service has recently begun sponsoring a program that helps involve "sincerely interested" amateur archaeologists in digging established sites, cutting down on the large numbers of "weekenders" who formally excavated ruins and burials haphazardly. However, Lerner maintains that irresponsible pot hunting is still a statewide scourge.
"Things like Cornville occur a lot, [but] we just haven't always been able to catch them in time. Developers sell or lease land all the time just for its archaeological value. And, of course, we have communal sites being decimated in a wholesale way by dozens of pot hunters."
One of the most extreme cases is the Four Mile Ruin site, a Mongollon village near Snowflake. More than 500 out of 600 rooms at the massive ruins were excavated by collectors in the 1980s for pottery. "There were bones lying around everywhere," Lerner says. "The site had just been bulldozed."
Another site, near Winslow--the Homolovi ruin--was pillaged by pot hunters until it was protected as a state park in 1986. "There were so many holes in the ground at Homolovi," Lerner says, "it looked like Dresden."
Charles Redman, the chairman of the anthropology department at Arizona State University, picks a different war--saying the Homolovi site resembles "a Civil War battlefield, with thousands of holes"--but agrees with Lerner that pot hunters have had a devastating effect on Arizona archaeology.
"They have an enormous impact in this state, in particular," Redman says. "Many sites in Arizona have been totally destroyed by these people, to the point that more have been destroyed than are left."
Take one look at Four Mile Ruin or Homolovi, Lerner says, and it is easy to see that destructive pot hunting is still a popular activity. Or, take a look at Walter's collection.
Identifying himself only by his first name because he "doesn't want the Indians knocking on the door," Walter says he is a "collector of fascinating and important things." In his little clapboard house south of Cottonwood, Walter proudly shows them off.
He has several boxes of bones he found while digging for pottery all over northern Arizona. On his mantle sits a skull, with a bumper sticker stuck to the forehead proclaiming, "This House Protected by Smith and Wesson." He says he collects mostly pottery--an extensive collection he gets "wherever I can, as long as I don't get into trouble"--but also keeps an occasional bone to remind him of a unique dig.
"For instance, the skull I got on one site where I really found some outstanding items," he says. "I kept him because he was good luck. I call him `Lucky Dug.'"
Walter is the kind of collector--the skull-and-bone hoarder who treats human remains as mere curios--who earns special abhorrence from tribal members. But they are quick to point out that it is not just these extreme cases that justify the restrictions on the use of private property imposed by the new state law. Cecil Antone, a Gila Indian and a key member of the state and tribal group that lobbied for new burial excavation laws, says any infringement on the principle of private ownership is counterbalanced by a more humane principle--the right of the dead to rest undisturbed.
"Private property has to do with respect for rights of all peoples," Antone says. "White society has a problem. They need to gain sensitivity and to abstain from the desecration of the dead for any reason. What we are really talking about is a spiritual issue rather than a matter of law."
BY SECURING THE stringent enforcement of state and federal laws against digging on both private and public land, the tribes hope to cut off the flow of artifacts to dealers and collectors. But just as important, they say, is their plan to retrieve remains and burial objects that have been locked away for decades in dusty closets and storerooms of state and federal museums.
"These are our people," Minkler says. "They have significance way beyond the study of bones in a box."
House Bill 2523, signed into law by Governor Rose Mofford earlier this year, amends the state's Antiquities Acts to include steps for tribes to take if they want to regain religious and burial items in state collections and taken from state lands. Its counterpart on the national level is the Native American Grave and Repatriation Act, a law sponsored by Senator John McCain and Representative Morris Udall, which established a national review board to decide what artifacts in federally funded institutions will be returned to tribes requesting repatriation. At stake in Arizona are thousands of pots, artifacts and skeletal remains, including several hundred remains at ASU's anthropology department more than 1,300 specimens stored at NAU's Museum of Northern Arizona and priceless religious items at Phoenix's Heard Museum.
To determine the origin of the objects and remains, the laws require the museums to make an inventory of their collections immediately. The tribes, then, can request the return of objects, and each request will be considered by the national board, appointed by the Secretary of the Interior. It sounds simple, but in reality, museum officials say, it's a logistical nightmare that may end up being decided not by professional archaeologists or the tribes but by the courts.
ASU's Redman says "it's impossible to catalogue and determine the origin of all the artifacts in every collection. Each one would require a lifelong study, and even then we couldn't determine for sure. If I dig something out of the ground that's 1,000 years old, how can you conclusively trace it to the Indians that are living out here in 1990? You can't."
"Basically what we are going to have to do, when a tribe says something belongs to it, is just take its word for it."
Redman and David Wilcox, curator at NAU's Museum of Northern Arizona, both say they welcome a chance to work with the tribes on repatriation, and both point out the new laws received the support of professional archaeology organizations, curators and professors. Wilcox points out that archaeologists can no longer afford to hide "horrible examples of desecration, like that collection at the Smithsonian, which we must bring into the light and face up to."
The Smithsonian Institution has 18,000 Indian corpses in storage, dating from when the U.S. Surgeon General had asked the army to take Indian heads during the plains wars of the 1870s so that experiments could be conducted to determine Native American intelligence. "This isn't the kind of thing we should be abetting," Wilcox says.
But while the tribes' relationship with academics is far more cordial than with pot hunters, a tension does exist which is likely to worsen as requests for repatriation of artifacts pour in.
Minkler says the Hopis are planning to request some religious collections at the Heard and state universities. She says that while the number of artifacts to be requested by the tribe hasn't been finalized, it is going to be greater than the institutions expect. "We want a lot of it back," she says. "And I mean a lot."
The Gila tribe, one of the state's most militant, is also expected to request "big numbers" of remains and artifacts from museums, Antone says. Of special interest are collections at the state museum and ASU that were found during the Papago and HoHoKam freeway construction.
"Archaeologists do need things to study," he says. "But how much material do they need to further scientific knowledge? Certainly not all of them. It is time for much to be returned."
The biggest effect on the state-sponsored institutions will be in the areas of research and education. "Archaeology will go on," Redman says, "but it makes me sad that the ability to study human remains will be constrained. Our ability to do isotope studies, to determine DNA structure of these remains will be severely limited." In addition, museums are feeling political pressure from tribes to stop featuring remains in their public displays, a move which some feel could limit educational efforts. ASU has a four-year-old policy prohibiting the public display of remains.
"When I was young and went to the natural history museum," Redman says, "the first thing I wanted to see were the Egyptian mummies. Why? Because they were people. Artifacts are stone, but these were human beings and they are intrinsically interesting. We are losing that."
Worried about what else they stand to lose, professors and curators are protective of their specimens. Redman, who says the topic is "too hot" because of "the current highly charged atmosphere," refused to allow a photograph to be taken even of the storage facilities where ASU's remains are kept.
"[Tribes] see things like that and then target the remains; they come after them," Redman says. "We do need to be careful."
But choke on them as they might, most museums are managing to swallow requests for repatriation of remains. However, as tribes increase their requests for return of the valuable funerary objects--many of which can fetch more than $10,000 on the open market--many museums could balk. Privately funded museums, or those that receive only a fraction of their funding from the government, also have trustees to answer to. And the forfeiture of items that may have been purchased for thousands of dollars is not considered sound financial management. One Phoenix collector who has made several donations to the Heard Museum says he will "fight like hell, including going to battle in a courtroom, before seeing those precious things returned to tribes that won't care for them properly anyway."
Although not directly affected by the federal legislation, most dealers and collectors are also watching the outcome of the tribal-museum conflict with a leery eye. Will Hughes, an Arizona pot hunter and friend of Peter Hester, claims the repatriation legislation makes archaeology "a castrated science."
"Scientists will be forced to go without a lot of knowledge if they can't experiment and learn freely from remains," he says. "This is akin to if animal-rights advocates had their way and all experiments were performed by computer model. It just isn't as effective.
"And the next thing they will want is the repatriation of all private collections."
Hester claims just the presence of the bill has had a "catastrophic" impact on dealers. "It's a ripple effect throughout the art world," he says. "People hear the word `repatriation' and they are reluctant to buy, because they are not not sure of the legal status of the material they will be purchasing."
But the bottom line, say the tribes, is that these remains and objects aren't meant to be bought and sold. "There is no difference between sites 200 years old or two weeks old," Minkler says. "These are remains of deceased individuals, and what they were buried with, and they can't be somebody else's private property.
"If someone disagrees with any of these laws, I'm looking forward to seeing them tested."
THE FIRST TEST MAY COME on a deserted, scrub-covered patch of high-desert terrain in the Verde Valley nicknamed the Verde Ball Court. The forty-acre archaeological dig, owned by Hester, is likely to be the site of a showdown between the state and the tribes on one hand, and pot hunters on the other.
Hester says he returned to the Ball Court in mid-November for the first time in months. "I walked off this site when the legislation came up," he grins. "But I'm ready to come back."
He scrambles like an eager child over the mounds of dirt and around a maze of narrow trenches, his eye searching for any glint or irregularity that could signal a prize--a pottery fragment, a symmetrical pattern of stones, a sliver of bone, anything that could give a clue as to what lies below.
Suddenly, he stops and bends to scoop up a tiny off-white bone chip, the size of a toothpick. "There," Hester says. "Technically, we've discovered a burial. Now we have to go call Ray Thompson or we've committed a felony.
"Well. We will see about that."
Hester says he plans to reopen excavations at the site soon, and intends to notify the state as soon as he uncovers any burials. He will follow the letter of the law, he says, until state archaeologists or tribal members attempt to remove the remains or artifacts.
"At that point," he says, "I'll just say no."
Hester says he wants to turn the Verde Ball Court into a site where schoolchildren and amateur archaeologists can come and view the artifacts pulled from the ground and participate in the ongoing excavation. The Ball Court, he says, could produce scientific and educational gains as well as profit. Although state preservation and tribal officials may doubt his motives, Hester says he has the support to challenge the law and win.
"People out here are ready to fight this thing," he says. "I've got people ready to come out here with me, link arms and sing `We Shall Overcome.'"
One of those people is Young resident Barbara Zachariae, who helped gather hundreds of signatures on a petition opposing the bill last summer. She puts the issue in a constitutional context and warns that enforcement of the law will be difficult.
"Why should private-property rights be suspended because of the religious beliefs of the tribes that these remains need reburial?" she asks. "This is a conflict of church and state. The common good has to be truly common, not just for one religious group.
"Don't misunderstand," she says. "People in the rural areas aren't what I would call rednecks, although there are some of those. Most people out here are really just rugged individualists living a hard life. A lot of their parents and grandparents fought Indians, the elements, everything.
"And they realize that the whole story of this land--and really, of civilization--is the story of one tribe taking the land away from the other. They have it now. And they feel they can do what they want with it."
That sentiment is running so strong in communities like Young that one petition signer was overheard to say, "If anyone comes out here and tries to tell me what to do with what is on my land, I'll be waiting for them with a shotgun."
Paul Bender, an ASU College of Law professor and primary architect of the new state law, says that Zachariae's frontier interpretation of law is simplistic and overlooks a "general consensus that there is no property in human remains."
"I think we can all see there is something wrong in digging up burial sites," he says. "If I found a burial in my front yard, it would be inappropriate of me to dig up the body and take a ring off its finger. What the pot hunters are doing is no different.
"You know, if the Iraqis invaded Arizona and began exhuming cemeteries, we would be outraged, too. These burial sites are the same as our cemeteries, and they were meant to stay that way."
But as he surveys the Ball Court, Hester speaks wistfully of the days not so many years ago when he would go out and excavate anywhere he pleased without hindrance--on federal land, the Hopi reservation, wherever the digging was good. "Now all of a sudden there are fences and roads," he says. "In this business there used to be no boundaries and no borders. Now the federal government wants to control everything. That's just life today, I guess."
He looks off into the hills, beyond the Ball Court, watching the afternoon clouds roll into the Valley.
"But what they don't realize is that you may be able to stop Peter Hester, but you can't stop all this," he says, gesturing at the wide expanse of the Valley. "It's everywhere you look, you just can't see it.
"People are going to get at this stuff because they want it. And the tribes, the professors, the state--they will all just have to deal with it."
"You have disturbed the graves of my ancestors. How about if I dig up your grandparents?" the Hopi asked.
Must use the quote below. Thanks.
To Native Americans, pot hunters are contemptible grave robbers. One Hopi official calls them "rapists, plain and simple."
The battle over bones in Arizona, pitting ownership and ancestry against one another, is only the preamble to a cultural clash with national impact.
"My freedom to dig is tied with the freedom to pursue science, business and with basic principles of ownership and morality."
Arriving by airplane, helicopter and trucks, officers closed in, guns drawn, to arrest Hester and his partners for digging on government soil.
Must use the quote below. Thanks.
"I just throw [the bones] back into the ground, which is the same thing the tribes would do with them if they were returned for reburial."
Allaire blames a small circle of professional pot hunters for "99.9 percent of all the damage done to archaeological sites in this state."
"There were so many holes in the ground at Homolovi," Lerner says, "it looked like Dresden."
On Walter's mantle sits a skull, with a bumper sticker stuck to the forehead proclaiming, "This House Protected by Smith and Wesson."
Here's another "must use" below.
Will Hughes, an Arizona pot hunter and friend of Hester, claims the repatriation legislation makes archaeology "a castrated science."
If possible, this one below, too.
"If anyone comes out here and tries to tell me what to do with what is on my land, I'll be waiting for them with a shotgun."
"If I found a burial in my front yard, it would be inappropriate to dig up the body and take a ring off its finger. What the pot hunters do is no different.