This post is authored by John R. Welch, Director of the Landscape and Site Preservation Program with Archaeology Southwest.
U.S. Representative Thomas O’Halleran (D-AZ-1) took time out this summer to visit an important ancestral village site on White Mountain Apache Tribe (WMAT) lands. On a warm afternoon, in the good company of WMAT Cultural Resources Director Ramon Riley, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Mark Altaha, and Archaeology Southwest CEO Bill Doelle, the Congressman heard directly from the site stewards. Riley told O’Halleran, “Apaches have taken care of these lands and places for many generations, since time immemorial. We were traditionally taught, ‘Díí nagoz’aani bidádin’ii’ le’,’ protect and respect places of power and history.”
Riley and Altaha led the group off the beaten track, to a place that once provided homes for about a dozen families, the ancestors of today’s Zuni and Hopi tribes. O’Halleran and other visitors were saddened to learn that many of the old rooms at the village—still defined by sandstone and limestone wall stubs—had been excavated without authorization or proper scientific protocol. “Gravediggers!,” Riley sneered, saying, “It did not used to be like this, with people going around and digging up graves and stealing the things people were given to help them in the spirit world.” About 20 of the rooms that defined and surrounded the plaza, the ceremonial and communal center of the village, were unceremoniously dug out about 6 years ago.
Mark Altaha offered some important history to the Congressman, explaining that “looting and grave digging was a big problem here on the reservation in the 1960s and 1970s. In the days before the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (1979) and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990), people hunted down the ancestral Hopi and Zuni sites and helped themselves. I guess you could say it was a sort of hobby, but the damage and desecration was terrible. Now we are seeing fewer incidents, but the damage is just as serious. It seems like the looters and grave robbers operating today are professionals. We have to be careful.”
Riley and Altaha are part of a team working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Tucson-based non-profit, Archaeology Southwest. Bill Doelle, the leader of Archaeology Southwest, said “archaeologists, many of whom see places and objects mainly through scientific lenses, have contributed to the loss of connections between tribal communities and their ancestral sites. We archaeologists need to do more to understand community concerns and safeguard the lands and landscapes in keeping with local, and especially tribal concerns and preferences.”
Congressman Tom O’Halleran ahead of Ramon Riley (right) and Bill Doelle (left) on the trail to a badly damaged ancestral village.
Congressman O’Halleran was disappointed to learn that, “the same problem of looting we see in the Oak Creek Valley, on the Coconino National Forest, is also a concern on reservation land.” “I had hoped to learn that these criminals would at least have the respect to stay off tribal lands,” O’Halleran said. On the other hand, the Congressman voiced approval for the team’s work: “The federal government can’t solve every problem, and it is great to see the Tribe’s historic leadership in cultural and heritage conservation continue in this program to exclude grave robbing and artifact theft from the reservation.” “It is always gratifying to see community-driven partnerships that include tribes, federal agencies, and non-profits,” O’Halleran said, “I certainly support efforts to prevent, detect, and prosecute archaeological resource crime. We need more partnerships like this.”
To report suspected looting activity, please secure your personal safety first, then promptly call 911 or 1-800-637-9152 to report the crime. A reward of $500 is allowed for information leading to a looting conviction.
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