Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Black Mesa mines: Native Americans demand return of their ancestors' bones

Leslie Macmillan in the Guardian (UK): In 1967 the Peabody coal company came to the Navajo and Hopi reservations in northern Arizona and Utah to excavate a strip mine – but the land it leased from the tribes was on an ancient tribal burial ground. So, as required by law, it hired archeologists and for the next 17 years a dig known as the Black Mesa archeological project – the largest in North American history – unearthed more than one million artefacts, including the remains of 200 Native Americans.

Now the bones and artefacts are at the centre of a debate between tribes people who say ancestral remains and archeological ruins have been desecrated, and a coal company and government officials who are planning a new dig.

Native American groups and the Sierra Club are suing the US government to protect ancient Indian burial sites as one of the world’s biggest coal companies, Peabody, seeks a lifetime mining permit for the land it leases from the tribes. “I am incensed that my ancestors were dug up, ground up and send off to universities to be studied,” said Vernon Masayesva, a plaintiff and former Hopi tribal chairman.

Peabody says it has taken good care of the artefacts and bones. The collection is curated “with the express wishes of both tribes” and “in compliance with federal law,” said Beth Sutton, a company spokesperson.

But a report by the Army Corps of Engineers, which surveyed the collection early last decade at the University of Illinois, where it is housed, found the curation to be “substandard in every respect”. Rodents and spiders “were a problem”, according to the report, which notes that facilities had been broken into and artefacts were missing.

What’s more, Alan Downer, a former historical preservation officer for the Navajo Nation, said the tribe had never authorised any remains to be loaned to a professor, Debra L Martin, who teaches at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. He said he was “shocked to find out” about eight years ago, that she had had the bones since 1980...

A thunderstom of Black Mesa, near Kayenda, Arizona. Shot by Famartin, Wikimedia Commns, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

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