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.

In the summer of 2006 I find myself in the backcountry of Mesa Verde National Park, staring into a large trench which holds the remains of over 2,000 individuals. My ancestors. It is overwhelming to say the least. This will be one of the largest reburials conducted in NAGPRA history, and is my introduction to the whole repatriation process.

At the time, I was working with the Hopi Tribes Cultural Preservation Office (HCPO), which administers 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 staff from the National Park Service (NPS), various state agencies and other tribal representatives.

For this reburial, the Hopi Tribe had assumed the lead, which was agreed upon by other Tribes who were also involved. In addition, Hopis lead role was also supported by establishing “Cultural Affiliation” between Hopi and the ancestors in question. Defining and determining “Cultural Affiliation” is a long and complicated process that I won’t go into detail here.

Back to the task at hand.

So, just where did these ancestors come from, and why are we now engaged in their re-burial? The majority of these 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. These remains, like so many others throughout the country, ended up in boxes, given an accession number and stored in warehouses. In extremely disturbing instances, some remains were put on public display (as one unfortunate individual who was encased in cement to mimic the excavation process, and then displayed inside a glass case).

Cataloged Artifacts (not actual NAGPRA items).

Cataloged Artifacts (not actual NAGPRA items).

The bottom line is 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. Most were buried with “funerary objects”; pottery, jewelry, textiles, baskets and other “gifts” to carry with them into the after-life. As part of the reburial, these items are placed back with their owners as originally intended.

The process to “identify” these individuals is extremely tedious, requiring the expertise of physical anthropologists – experts in human remains – to help determine certain aspects such as gender and age, which aid the reburial process. When it came time for reburial, the actual process was conducted according to procedures set forth by Hopi Cultural Advisors. Following their guidance, the reburial of over 2,000 individuals was completed in one day.

Hopi Consultation Team. Comprising elders, archaeologists and ethnographers.

Hopi Consultation Team. Comprising elders, archaeologists and ethnographers.

For the Hopi men who choose to be involved, it can be a difficult choice, as there are cultural and personal boundaries we have to face and ultimately cross. When I first told my family that I was going to be conducting reburials, they objected to it. They were afraid there could be negative consequences, physically and spiritually. They worried that I was not adequately prepared to take on this responsibility.

While I respected their concerns, I viewed my participation as necessary, as a way to correct the wrongs of the past. In hindsight, I was also naive about it all, not fully understanding the implications of my decision. Yet, I felt I needed to do something, and that compelled me to participate.

This work does take its toll. I am often physically and emotionally exhausted at the end of the day. There are a myriad of emotions and feelings that I experience, but I have learned to suppress these while I work. Mostly. I will forever remember the first time I unpacked an infant from the storage box and placed her on the ground. Unexpectedly, I felt tears form, and I struggled to compose myself. Realizing that this little girl was the same age as one of my own daughters. Through blurred vision, I gently laid her in place and moved onto the next.

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 with their final journey. 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 also experience frustration and anger, wondering why my ancestors were treated with such disrespect, robbed of their humanity. Their final journey disturbed and their souls left uneasy. But those emotions are not welcome, at least while I am working, and it is best to remain focused.

I sometimes talk to the dead. I hold them face-to-face and ask them who they are. I reassure them we are here to help, and that no further harm will come to them. They are free to go. Other times, during the long day, I say nothing, and work in silence, hoping that we can finish before sunset.

I appreciate those that come to assist us. In addition to the Hopi team, there are usually other tribal representatives involved. Nowadays, however, that number grows smaller as people age, and are no longer physically able to do this work. The truth is, this isn’t something that other Hopi men are eager to get involved with.

There are many others who come to help; archaeologists, museum specialists, maintenance workers, trail crew and volunteers. Their extra hands help to unload boxes, unpack the remains and if needed, assist in their final placement. According to Hopi belief, only males are allowed within the reburial pit (one of my uncles, who is also involved in these efforts, jokes it is because Hopi males are expendable).

I do not consider this to be morbid work. I have never been squeamish about bones, human or not, but there is nothing glamorous about it. 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 returning, but for those of us who remain. The Living. The Deceased. Hopefully we can all rest easier.

As we work, we are reminded of the very personal expressions of these ancestors. This is shown by the intricate jewelry that they wore with pride, made from shell, stone and other materials that came from distant lands. As well as ceramics of all types – plain, decorated, imported, and the one-of-a-kind. These items show that their lives were not all labor and toil, they had the opportunity to enjoy the better times of life with family and community. 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.

Yet, I have to remind myself not to admire too much, these items are no longer meant for this world, and I send them on their way. I know this can be difficult for some of my non-Native colleagues. I hear them lament about “losing” access to these items, and in turn, their research potential. I do not sympathize with them. Their thoughts and statements have no place in this Holy Ground. I remind everyone we must respect what needs to be done and move on.

At the end, I say a final prayer to my ancestors. I ask them to be at peace. I tell them, “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. 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 for the night. I build a fire and sit staring at the flames, watching stars in the night sky. I allow myself to release the suppressed emotions from the day. I concentrate on bringing myself back to this world. Among The Living.

I may never know who these people were in real life, we only cross paths in this one, brief instance. Yet I am thankful for their presence. They are the “footprints of the ancestors” that I follow in my own journey of understanding.

As I reflect on the day, I wonder if what we do really corrects the mistakes of the past? Are we doing the right thing? Will there indeed be repercussions for my involvement? Only time will tell.

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.


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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s