Indian Artifacts
© The Arizona RepublicDozens of arrowheads were among the more than 600 items recovered by archaeologists from an ancient Sinagua grave near Flagstaff, Ariz.; those sacred items and remains of a man nicknamed “the Magician” reportedly were repatriated to the Hopi Tribe in secret proceedings.
Phoenix -- On an unknown date at an unidentified location, the U.S. government turned over a collection of undisclosed Sinagua artifacts to anonymous members of the Hopi Tribe for unspecified disposition.

The mysterious proceedings this fall involved an archaeological treasure trove and a substantial expenditure of tax dollars. Yet virtually everything about it remains secret under a federal law known as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA.

The 1990 law enables Indian tribes to reclaim ancestral remains and sacred objects that were unearthed from native burial sites by scientists or looters. Along with supplemental statutes, it also authorizes U.S. agencies to conceal virtually all details of those transactions.

The recent Hopi event involved archaeological digs from Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff. When The Arizona Republic sought a description of the repatriated items and an accounting of federal money spent, the government repeatedly answered, "Our intent is to honor the tribe's request, made in consultation, not to disclose information."

The secrecy and phrasing hint at an underlying controversy that has festered since the repatriation act was adopted.

For Native Americans, the repatriation of remains and funerary objects is a matter of justice - the return of sacred possessions that were dug up, defiled and displayed for decades in violation of tribal beliefs and human rights. To this day, activists are pushing to expand the law in the name of privacy, religious freedom and tribal sovereignty.

Conversely, for some archaeologists and anthropologists, the loss of ancient artifacts represents a scientific sacrilege - disposal of objects that may be irreplaceable in understanding human history and cultures.

Most researchers no longer defend the excavation of Indian burial sites, and few will publicly criticize the repatriation act because to do so would jeopardize their professional careers. But, privately, the repatriation of relics that were unearthed decades ago continues to raise questions of academic freedom, political correctness and the public's right to know.

Officials at the Museum of Northern Arizona, which housed at least some of the bones and artifacts returned to the Hopis this year, cooperated with the repatriation and declined to discuss the Sinagua collection. The non-profit museum sponsored many of the area archaeological digs years ago and remains a repository for artifacts.

Kelley Hays-Gilpin, anthropology curator, said that those items were the property of the federal government and that only a fraction of the museum's collection was lost. "It's not like we're getting emptied out," she said.

Still, records and sources indicate that items claimed by the Hopis included one of the most scientifically important burial subjects ever found in the Southwest - and perhaps one of the most sacred of Hopi ancestors.

He is known as the Magician, and his remains were accompanied by a unique archaeological bounty.

Swallower of Sticks

The man was buried at a place known as the Ridge Ruin, about 20 miles outside Flagstaff, in an unremarkable house of stone and clay. He remained there, undisturbed, for 800 years.

Then, in the late 1930s, John C. McGregor, an archaeologist at the Museum of Northern Arizona, uncovered the skeleton, along with more than 600 carefully placed funerary objects: ornate jewelry, baskets, cutting blades, mountain-lion teeth, shells, a pointy cap made of beads and, as a final offering, 420 arrows.

McGregor found what he called "the most outstanding decorative basket that has ever been found in the Southwest," featuring 1,500 carefully cut pieces of turquoise as well as rows of other stones and rodent teeth.

Many items, such as an exotic macaw corpse, were from distant lands. Some researchers suggested that the man of about 40 was a traveling Aztec merchant, or pochteca.

But Hopis who assisted and consulted McGregor said many of the objects were associated with ancient tribal skills such as shape-shifting, combating witchcraft and controlling weather or warfare. For example, they said 13 wooden pointers, laid over the remains, were used in a sort of sword-swallowing feat of magic by members of a warrior society. They called the man Moochiwimi, or Swallower of Sticks.

In a 1943 article for the American Philosophical Society, McGregor wrote that the Magician comprised "the richest burial ever reported in the Southwest." Others described it as "The King Tut of Northern Arizona."

To this day, the Magician remains a subject of research and conjecture.

Michael O'Hara, a professor at Arizona State University's School of Human Evolution and Social Change, wrote about him last year in a paper for the Society for American Archaeology.

O'Hara disputed the theory that ceremonial items reflected wealth, suggesting instead that the interment of ritual objects helped mourners reorder their social unit after the loss of a key figure.

O'Hara, who did not respond to interview requests, wrote that the Magician represents a "spectacular and wholly unique" archaeological find that provides "unparalleled insights into the social roles present in Sinagua society."

The Hopi way

Even today, Hopi tribal structure is based on a network of social groups, each with specialized responsibilities, skills and secret rituals stemming from spiritual beliefs.

Religious practices are considered so sacred that the secrets are not even shared among various societies. No Hopi who was contacted for this story would comment.

That deep sense of privacy is exemplified in a "Protocol for Research and Publication" posted on the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office website.

The protocol prohibits archaeological, anthropological or historical work - even news stories - without permission, and authorizes censorship of information deemed sensitive or thought to misrepresent the Hopi way.

Twenty-two years ago, Congress adopted the repatriation act with support from most major archaeology and anthropology associations. The Heard Museum in Phoenix spearheaded recommendations.

The law established a process for Native Americans to reclaim bones, burial relics and other items of "cultural patrimony" that were collected by scientists or stolen by looters. Scores of museums and federal agencies are required to create lists of remains or sacred objects and determine whether those items are affiliated with modern indigenous groups. Inventories are supposed to be published in the Federal Register.

Nationwide, nearly 179,000 whole or partial corpses have been identified, with nearly 13,000 of those returned to tribes. More than two-thirds of the remains have not been linked to modern tribes.

In addition, museums and federal agencies have listed about 2 million funerary or sacred objects. Roughly 176,000 of those have been turned over to tribes.

Since 1996, the National NAGPRA Program has issued more than $500,000 in grants to the Hopi Tribe for repatriation.

The federal program is managed by Sherry Hutt, who served for years as a Maricopa County Superior Court judge. Hutt, who also prosecuted artifact looters as an assistant U.S. attorney in Phoenix, said the law gives indigenous people a tool to regain items that were rightfully theirs. To put it in context, she said, imagine if someone wanted to dig up your parents for a new roadway: Who should decide what is done with the remains?

"Really, what NAGPRA says is Native Americans are just like everybody else - no more, no less," Hutt said. "It does not say you can't do science. What it says is: 'These are not your personal property.'"

Destroying history?

Resistance from some scientists is hardly new. In an essay published 15 years ago, Grinnell College (Iowa) anthropologist John Whittaker discussed a great divide between researchers and Native Americans.

Whittaker opened with a stanza from the Indian protest song, "Here Come the Anthros," by the late Sioux musician Floyd Red Crow Westerman:

The Anthros keep on digging our sacred ceremonial sites

As if there's nothing wrong and education gives them the right.

But the more they keep on digging, the less they really see,

'Cause they got no respect, for you or for me.

Whittaker offered a response, without rhymes:

"He wants me to leave it alone; I want to excavate it and learn from it. He wants control to be in Indian hands; I regard it as a human heritage that belongs to all. ... I am interested in his opinions about the past; he doesn't think I have anything to say to him."

Whittaker, who declined to comment for this story, argued in his essay that science honors the dead by studying their lives and adding historical understanding to present-day cultures. He wrote that NAGPRA is "subtly racist" and "disastrous for archaeology" because it makes research politically incorrect while wiping out the chance to learn from previous finds.

"The laws have resulted in the destruction by reburial of vast amounts of archaeological evidence," he said.

Other prominent researchers have made similar points in litigation against NAGPRA, arguing that ancient remains in North America go back 11,000 years or more and, in some cases, have no cultural or genetic ties with modern Indians.

In a famous suit known as the Kennewick Man case, two archaeologists at the Smithsonian Institution and a University of Arizona professor were among eight plaintiffs who blocked the transfer of a 9,000-year-old skeleton to tribes in Washington state. A federal judge ruled there was no evidence tying the remains to contemporary cultures or people, so scientists were entitled to conduct research under another law, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act.

C. Vance Haynes Jr., a professor emeritus of anthropology and geology at the University of Arizona, said he consulted with a Hopi colleague before signing on as plaintiff in the Kennewick case. "He told me, 'You know, Vance, we're not all one Indian. There are a lot of us who want to know where we came from, and about our past.'"

Haynes specializes in the roughly 13,000-year-old Clovis culture, among the earliest humans in North America. "NAGPRA is a very important law," he said. "But, when it comes to sites more than 4,000 years old, we need to be able to study. ... Our whole mission is to increase knowledge."

Cleone Hawkinson, an anthropologist and president of a group known as Friends of America's Past, said federal policy discriminates in favor of Native Americans and thwarts the quest to fathom human development.

"NAGPRA is a narrow law, unfairly administered," said Hawkinson, who assisted plaintiffs in the Kennewick case. "Factual understanding of the past is distorted when a limited group is singled out as rightful 'owners' of all of prehistory and scientific inquiry is prohibited to evaluate their claims."

Stolen remains

James Riding In, an American Indian studies scholar at Arizona State University, said indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere were victimized by grave-digging in the name of science and are only now able to let forebears rest in peace.

"The dead are not resources belonging to an invading culture," he said. "The problem is that archaeologists and anthropologists stole those remains and created those issues."

There is not a homogeneous Indian perspective on death or afterlife but scores of different beliefs, Riding In said. Some may welcome archaeological inquiry, he said, but many view the excavation and removal of corpses as taboo.

Riding In said his people, the Pawnees, are among the latter: "There's still a spirit associated with those remains. The only purpose for disturbing the dead (in Pawnee culture) is to do harm to the living through witchcraft."

Riding In, who has participated in a number of repatriation events, said bones and artifacts are usually reburied either where they were unearthed or in an ancestral homeland. He said that archaeology and anthropology sometimes help Native people learn about the past or verify sacred sites or objects but that modern science also denigrates their beliefs as fairy tales.

Tribes have a right to privacy in reclaiming the ancients, regardless of tax dollars expended, Riding In and others said. "It is a sovereignty issue that allows Indians to determine what happens to their deceased. ... It should be respected," he said.

Since NAGPRA was adopted, remains from more than 1,200 humans have been claimed by Arizona tribes in about 40 repatriation events.

John McClelland, NAGPRA coordinator at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson, said he got no official word that Hopis took possession of the Magician, but there were rumors. He added that the event apparently included additional Sinagua items that had been housed at the museum in Tucson.

McClelland said that NAGPRA is a fact of life and that most contemporary archaeologists respect the sensitivity of living people even if they regret the vanishing of scientific materials that might yield new information about their forebears. "It's true, there is a loss," he said. "Basically, that's the reality these days. ... The bottom line is it's a matter of human rights and Native American rights."