Face-to-Face: 25 Years of NAGPRA

On the approach of the 25th anniversary of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), I wanted to reflect on my personal experiences in dealing with and implementing NAGPRA with the Hopi Tribe. This is not meant to be a technical, legal or political analysis of the Act, there are other resources available if one wishes to learn more.


November 16, 1990.

This was the day that the Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed into law. At the time, I was 15 years old and had no idea that this law existed or what its’ implications would be on my life and the lives of my fellow Hopi people. Fast forward 16 years…

In the summer of 2006 I find myself in the backcountry of Mesa Verde National Park and I’m staring into a large trench which holds the remains of over 2,000 individuals. The bones of my ancestors lay before me and I’m trying to comprehend the situation as a whole. It is overwhelming to say the least and I’m wondering what I got myself into. This is one of the largest reburials conducted in NAGPRA history and is my introduction to the whole process.

I had recently started working with the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office (HCPO), the formal governing body of the Hopi Tribe that deals with all matters of Cultural Resource Managment (CRM), including Archaeology, Anthropology, Ethnography, Linguistics and in this case, NAGPRA. As the new Archaeology Program Manager, I was given the assignment to help coordinate and carry-out this project, along with numerous individuals from the National Park Service (NPS), Museum Specialists from the State of Colorado, various agencies and other tribal representatives.

The Hopi Tribe, as a formal entity, had assumed the lead in this endeavor. This was based on established “Cultural Affiliation” with the prehistoric human remains in question. Establishing that affiliation is a long and complicated process; much like going to court, any tribe who claims affiliation with a set of human remains must “prove” this through several lines of evidence. The Hopi Tribe, in conjunction with Hopi elders, archaeologists, museum specialists, physical anthropologists and historians, had met this challenge sufficiently. It was an endeavor which spanned many years. Let’s leave it at that.

Back to the task at hand.

So just where did these remains come from and why were we re-burying them? The majority of the remains came from within the established boundaries of Mesa Verde National Park. Either as part of past archaeological excavations (deliberately removed from the ground) or through natural forces, such as erosion or as “inadvertent discoveries” – perhaps unearthed by accident through trail maintenance or other NPS activities. In anycase, these remains, like so many others throughout the country, had ended up in boxes, given an accession number and stored in warehouses or in some extreme cases, put on public display (as one unfortunate individual who was encased in cement to mimic an excavation and placed inside a glass case).

Cataloged Artifacts (not actual NAGPRA items).
Cataloged Artifacts (not actual NAGPRA items).

The bottom line was that these individuals, women, men, teenagers, children and infants, were no longer in their final resting places. In most cases, only fragments of them were left, partial skeletons that were once a living, breathing human being. Some of them were originally buried with “grave offerings”; pottery, jewelry, textiles, baskets and other “gifts” to carry with them into the after-life. These items were placed back with the individuals, as best as could be determined.

The identification process of these individuals is an extremely tedious task, requiring the expertise of archaeologists and physical anthropologists to examine each set of remains to determine gender and age; categorizing them into groups which would aid the reburial process. When it came time for reburial, the actual process was conducted according to cultural procedures set forth by which ever tribe assumed the lead. Thus the reburial was carried out and in one day, we re-buried over 2,000 individuals.

Since that day, I have been involved in half a dozen reburials with as many different federal, state and tribal agencies. Other Hopis, always males, have been involved with many more, since the dawn of the NAGPRA age. How and Why do I choose to be involved in this process? I can only speak for myself. I do not claim to voice the feelings or emotions of the other Hopis and Indigenous people who are involved in this aspect of NAGPRA.

Hopi Consultation Team. Comprising elders, archaeologists and ethnographers.
Hopi Consultation Team. Comprising elders, archaeologists and ethnographers.

It can be a difficult choice, there are cultural and personal boundaries we have to face and ultimately cross if we become involved. When I first told my family that I was going to be conducting the reburial at Mesa Verde, they objected to it and tried to change my mind. They were afraid there could be negative consequences, physically and spiritually, as a result of my involvement. They worried that I was not adequately prepared, at least from a cultural perspective. It’s not so much a cultural taboo or superstition in regards to handling human remains, but more of a concern that there could be other consequences that could affect my inner well-being.

While I respected their concerns, I viewed my participation as necessary, as a way to correct the wrongs of the past. Perhaps I was also a bit naive about it all, not fully understanding the implications of my decision. Yet it was that thinking that I needed to do something, which compelled me to participate. As an Indigenous person involved with the field of Archaeology and other aspects of CRM work, I have always felt that it is important to acknowledge the past history between the sciences of Anthropology, Archaeology and Indigenous people.

It has not always been respectful or beneficial and the Hopi experience has been no different. However I feel that by choosing to be involved in these fields, also requires my participation to make some positive changes. I think those of us who choose to be involved all carry the idea, that it is our duty and responsibility to respect and protect our relatives from a distant era. Thus I continue to re-bury the remains of my ancestors.

There are a myriad of emotions and feelings that I encounter while doing a reburial. I am often physically and emotionally exhausted at the end of the day. I have learned to hide my emotions while I am working, which can be a difficult task. I remember the first time I unpacked an infant from the storage box and placed it within the burial trench. Unexpectedly, I felt tears roll down my cheek and I had to compose myself. The thoughts of my own daughter who was the same age as this child crossed my mind. Through blurred vision, I gently arranged the fragments of skull and bones, placing alongside a small ceramic bowl and turquoise pendant she had been buried with. This emotion still occurs occasionally but I have learned to deal with it.

Other times I am left with surreal visions; such as countless skulls, all lined up facing east, waiting for their chance to greet the sun once again and continue on in their final journey. Or another time I took a skull out of the box and saw that this poor fellow had an obsidian projectile point embedded in his eye socket. He had died from his injury and it reminded me that at times, our history could be violent and unsettling.

I experience frustration and anger from time to time, wondering why my ancestors were treated with such disrespect to be labeled with a number and placed in storage boxes. Their final journey disturbed and their souls left uneasy. But those emotions are not welcome, at least during the actual reburial. They will resurface in me at a later time. Of course I am far from happy, but it is best to keep working and focus on getting the task done.

I sometimes talk to the dead as I’m laying them out. I hold them face-to-face and ask them who they are. I reassure them that we are there to help. I let them know that no further harm will come to them and they are free to go. Other times, during a long reburial, I say nothing and work in silence, hoping that we can finish before the sun sets. I drink or eat very little while I am working, taking short breaks to clear my head and talk with the living.

I am appreciative of those that come to assist us. Usually there are only a few Hopi or other tribal representatives involved, some from other tribes. Nowadays, that number grows smaller as people age and are no longer physically able to do the work. This type of work is not one that other Hopi males are eager to get involved with, for their own personal and cultural reasons. For now, there are only 2-3 of us who continue to do so. So be it.

But there are others who come to help; archaeologists, museum specialists, maintenance workers, trail crew and volunteers, from various agencies. Their extra hands help to unload boxes, unpack the remains and if needed, place the remains within the trench. According to Hopi belief, only males are allowed within the actual reburial pit (one of my uncles who is also involved in these efforts, jokes it is because Hopi males are expendable).

I don’t consider this to be morbid work. I have never been squeamish about bones, human or not. When I think about it, I guess I was destined to do this, but there is nothing glamorous in it. Again, I view it as an individual responsibility. What I take from it, or rather what I hope is gained, is a sense of peace for all involved. Not just for those we are reburying, but for those of us who remain. The Living. The Dead. Hopefully we can all rest easier.

One of the more amazing aspects of this whole ordeal are the personal items that are buried with an individual. Intricate jewelry that they wore with pride. Ceramics of all types, plain, decorated, imported and the one-of-a-kind. Shell, stone and other materials that came from distant lands. It showed that their lives were not all labor and toil, that they too had the opportunity to enjoy the better times of life. They contemplated their place in the universe, reflected in their art. They spent time with their families and friends, caring for one another in life and death.

Shell Necklace (not an actual NAGPRA item). Photo Credit: Dan Boone/Ryan Belnap, Bilby Research Center, Northern Arizona University.
Shell Necklace (not an actual NAGPRA item).
Photo Credit: Dan Boone/Ryan Belnap, Bilby Research Center, Northern Arizona University.
Turquoise Mosaic. Photo Credit: Dan Boone/Ryan Belnap, Bilby Research Center, Northern Arizona University.
Turquoise Mosaic (not an actual NAGPRA item).
Photo Credit: Dan Boone/Ryan Belnap, Bilby Research Center, Northern Arizona University.

I have to remind myself not to admire too much. That these items are no longer meant for this world, and so I place them alongside their owners and thank them for the chance to glimpse into their world. I also have to remind those who are helping in the reburial that this is not the time or place for in-field scientific analysis. I know this can be difficult for some of my archaeology colleagues, losing pieces of the past and with them, their scientific potential. I remind them that time has come and gone. Let us respect what needs to be done and move on.

When all is said and done, I say a final prayer to my ancestors. I ask them to be at peace. “Go be with your relatives who are waiting for you”. We leave offerings and conduct a cleansing ceremony for all involved, smudging ourselves in juniper smoke, washing away any negative feelings or emotions from the day. With final handshakes, the work crew disassembles and departs. I am usually one of the last to leave.

I never go directly home after a reburial. I find a secluded spot to camp out for the night. I build a fire and sit staring at the flames, watching stars in the night sky, slowly releasing the remainder of my emotions from the day. I reflect on the days activities and concentrate on bringing myself back to this world. I wonder if what we do really corrects the mistakes of the past. Will there indeed be repercussions for my involvement? Only time will tell.

I may never know who these people were in real life, we only cross paths in our journeys to our own final destinations. Yet I am thankful for their presence. They are the giants on whose shoulders I stand upon. The meaning of the past is what it contributes to life in the present.

I fall asleep knowing I will awaken to a new day and see in the eyes of my own children, the spirits of my ancestors.

We Are Still Here.


2 thoughts on “Face-to-Face: 25 Years of NAGPRA

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