A Grave Error

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.