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Cathy Robbins Thinking Aloud

The Past Was Looted; Now It’s Saved

The ancestors come home to Pecos. Photo by Cary Herz.

In the early 1900s, Harvard archaeologist Ted Kidder was pulling so many bodies out of ancient Pecos Pueblo in New Mexico that he worried he might run out of money for his "dig." It was one of the biggest and most important archaeological projects in the United States, and he ended up spending more than a decade on it. He shipped the 2000 bodies he found back east, and for 80 years, they sat on shelves, one body per box - at Harvard's Peabody Museum. During that time, the old pueblo became Pecos National Historical Park.

But then the descendants of Pecos petitioned to get their ancestors back. It took them ten years, but they finally did it in 1999, in the largest return - repatriation - of remains under the terms of NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which Congress passed in 1990. Some of them had rested at the Pecos cemetery for centuries and as late as the 1840s.

On a gorgeous spring day, the descendants re-buried their people. The bodies arrived at Pecos, and more than a thousand Pueblo Indians and well-wishers walked the final mile in a march, accompanying a huge white semi that had transported the revered ancestors from Harvard.

Kidder's "dig," a major advance in science, was an atrocity of looting to the Indians. But archaeologists pursued the same scientific quest across Indian Country, especially at the monuments of ancient peoples like Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. Bodies and precious, often sacred, items were excavated and shipped to museums in the United States and abroad and to the antiquities market. A group of Coloradans watched in outrage as European archaeologists carted off their state's treasures. They lobbied for legislation to protect America's ancient heritage. Unfortunately, looters and an illegal underground market continue to operate.

Pecos was a thriving community, but conquest, war and disease drove the living people out in the 1840s. After their homeland became part of the United States, they moved in with their kin at Jemez Pueblo, but they never forgot their ancestors.

Other American Indians across the United States have also retrieved their ancestors and their cultural heritage. It is a long and tedious process, but repatriation also brings communities together. For Pecos, repatriation meant years of negotiations with Harvard. For Harvard, it meant a whole new way of approaching their archaeological holdings. On the day of the long-awaited return, both groups wept at the re-burial.

Another result of the repatriation has been the participation of Native peoples in archaeological exploration. In Arizona, Hopi tribal members and archaeologists worked on a major "dig" north of Flagstaff. Cultural renewal has also seen the opening of new tribal museums and vibrant contemporary cultural development.

Certainly, the most visible of these museums is the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian, which opened on the National Mall in 2004. Its exhibits are built on the past work of archaeologists. More than 25,000 natives from across the Western Hemisphere, many in ceremonial dress, attended the inaugural. Today, NMAI, both in Washington and its branch in New York, serves to focus the world's attention on the rich heritage and the contemporary cultures of American Indians.
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