PHOENIX – The federal government recently returned a collection of artifacts to anonymous members of northern Arizona’s Hopi Tribe.
The proceeding involved a substantial expenditure of tax dollars, but the federal government has refused to provide an accounting of the money spent to return the archaeological treasure trove to the tribe under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
The government also has declined to describe the items.
“Our intent is to honor the tribe’s request, made in consultation, not to disclose information,” the government answered in response to requests made by The Arizona Republic.
The government’s response hints at an underlying controversy that has festered since the repatriation act was adopted in 1990.
Repatriation is a matter of justice for tribes. But 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.
The items returned to the Hopi were collected during archaeological digs on the Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff.
Records indicate the items included the remains of the Magician – one of the most scientifically important burial subjects ever found in the Southwest and perhaps one of the most sacred of Hopi ancestors.
The man was buried at a place known as the Ridge Ruin. The site was undisturbed for centuries until the late 1930s, when John McGregor, an archaeologist at the Museum of Northern Arizona, uncovered the skeleton and hundreds of carefully placed funerary objects that ranged from jewelry, baskets and cutting blades to mountain lion teeth. Some researchers suggested the man was a traveling Aztec merchant.
The Hopis said many of the objects were associated with ancient tribal skills such as shape-shifting, combating witchcraft and controlling weather or warfare. They called the man Moochiwimi, or Swallower of Sticks.
McGregor wrote in 1943 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 even though the Hopi continue to closely guard the sacredness of their religious practices.
The Hopi Cultural Preservation Office website includes protocols that prohibit archaeological, anthropological or historical work without permission, and authorizes censorship of information deemed sensitive or thought to misrepresent the Hopi way.
In the two decades since the repatriation act was adopted, museums and federal agencies have created lists of remains or sacred objects and determined whether those items are affiliated with modern indigenous groups.
Nearly 179,000 whole or partial corpses have been identified nationwide, with nearly 13,000 of those returned to tribes. More than two-thirds of the remains have not been linked to modern tribes.
About two million funerary or sacred objects have been inventoried by the museums and agencies. Roughly 176,000 of those have been turned over to tribes.
Since 1996, the NAGPRA program has issued more than $500,000 in grants to the Hopi Tribe for repatriation.
C. Vance Haynes Jr. is a professor emeritus of anthropology and geology at the University of Arizona. He was involved in a lawsuit that challenged the repatriation act.
“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, described the act as narrow. Hawkinson said federal policy discriminates in favor of Native Americans and thwarts the quest to fathom human development.
Arizona State University American Indian studies scholar James Riding In and others said tribes have a right to privacy in reclaiming the ancients, regardless of tax dollars spent.
“It is a sovereignty issue that allows Indians to determine what happens to their deceased. . It should be respected,” he said.