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Cathy Robbins Thinking Aloud

Bones Make a Difference

The people of Pecos and Jemez Pueblo accompany the remains of their ancestors―behind them in the white semi-truck―to their final rest. Photo by Cary Herz.

Bones! American Indians must have felt the pain of remembrance when the remains of Richard III were displayed, and the world responded with a “frenzy of forensic romance,” according to Newsweek. The monarch’s bones had rested serenely under the asphalt of a parking lot in England until researchers found them and confirmed his identity. He met a gruesome end at the Battle of Bosworth field in 1485, and his body, which showed signs of two lethal blows to the head as well as “humiliation” wounds after death, was simply stuffed into a grave. Richard violent death ended a decisive battle in the Wars of the Roses that had worn on sporadically for some thirty years, between his house of York and Henry Tudor’s house of Lancaster.

A more modern and predictable dispute broke out, however. Who will get Richard’s bones? The cathedrals at nearby Leicester and York want them; such a celebrity find could boost tourism. Richard’s bones will be interred rather than displayed, but he will not have a funeral, because he had one after he died, even if it was unceremonious.

Reburial was a thorny issue for the people of Jemez and Pecos Pueblo of New Mexico. They had spent a decade retrieving the remains of their ancestors that anthropologists had pulled out of the ground at ancient Pecos in the early part of the twentieth century. No one questioned the activity of anthropologists; theirs was a scientific mission. The remains of 2000 Pueblo peoples were sent back east and they ended up at the world-famous Peabody Museum at Harvard. For the Pueblos, however, the excavation wasn’t science; it was not only a desecration of bodies but also a disturbance of the spirit, in the cosmos. Grandparents, uncles, aunts and other relatives of people living today were probably among the dead.

The people of Pecos who had begun living at Jemez when the old pueblo fell into ruin teamed up with their kin to retrieve the lost ancestors. In 1999, Harvard returned the 2000 bodies in the largest repatriation of American Indian remains in U.S. history. On a gorgeous day in May of that year, the remains of the ancestors―each in containers about the size of a shoe box―arrived from Harvard in a large semi truck. More than 1000 Pueblos and their friends marched the final mile with the truck to the burial site at the old pueblo, which is now Pecos National Historical Park. The National Park Service allowed only Indians, NPS officials, and approved visitors from Harvard to attend the reburial. Fearing that the mass grave might be looted, officials refused to reveal its location, and the site was camouflaged after interment.

The Pueblos faced a vexing spiritual question. At death, a body is laid to rest and presumed to go on to the spirit world. Digging up a body is not even to be imagined. "What do we do about re-burial? We don't have a re-burial ceremony. We've never had to do that. We went back and forth with religious leaders to decide what to do," Randy Padilla, then governor of Jemez, said. They settled on a basic ceremony derived from the original burial rites, with one crucial difference. As Padilla put it, the people dedicated this burial "for all first peoples."

Bones are not just bones. While tourism officials squabble over Richard III, the peoples of Jemez and Pecos have righted the cosmos.
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