‘Leave them alone’

A modern-day Puebloan says disturbing artifacts shows disrespect

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Ancestral Puebloan dwellings and burial sites aren’t sources of buried treasure but places with spiritual and historic significance that should be revered, according to the modern-day Pueblo people who are related to the “ancient ones.”

“Although we’re not living there any more, the spirits of our forefathers, of the people who were living there, are still in those areas,” said Peter Pino, tribal administrator of the Zia Pueblo near Albuquerque, N.M.

“We hold those places in high regard because of that spiritual and physical connection.”

Pino said in the language spoken by the Zia Pueblo, there’s a special name for the area around Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients national monuments and westward into Utah, where much pot-hunting occurs these days. The name means “west of many houses [referring to Mesa Verde].”

“We still have a name for that place. We still address it. We still have a connection to it and we still have pilgrimmages to that area. Our forefathers are not forgotten. They’re still part of our spiritual world. We’re not just telling stories.”

Pino said it is always troubling to see ancient cultural sites picked apart for artifacts, but it is worse when people do it for money rather than mere souvenir- hunting or scholarly research.

“My experience with people raiding and stealing from the sites is they’re not doing it for their own use, they do it to make money,” Pino said. “That’s what’s really disturbing. Some of those items are going for huge amounts. That’s not right.”

Poverty and the bad economy are sometimes used as excuses for pothunting, but ironically the people who are often the most impoverished — Native Americans — and who have the easiest access to ancient sites rarely raid them. Pino said that is not surprising.

That’s really being disrespectful and you’re not going to see Native people doing that. Those things are not ours to take and exploit and abuse.”

The Puebloans know about exploitation and abuse. The population of Zia Pueblo today is 870, Pino said. When the Spaniards first came to the area, the population was an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 and there were five villages occupied and flourishing. By 1890 there were only 97 people remaining in Zia Pueblo and it was believed the tribe would soon vanish.

“Today we have only one existing pueblo,” Pino said. “The others are in ruins. We’ve never dug in those other areas. We’ve never disturbed or tried to develop them for the general public. We go to those sites to pray.”

Pino said Puebloans and most Natives believe ancient cultural sites ought to be left alone — not plundered, not even preserved or restored — although they recognize that there are national parks and monuments devoted to taking care of cultural resources for future generations. “The government has national parks and some of those national parks are resources that were left by our forefathers. Those are developed areas and that’s fine. We don’t have control over the land there.”

However, the Puebloans believe it’s better to let natural processes and time have their way with ancient artifacts, dwellings and remains.

“The respect we show to those sites is to leave them alone. If nature takes a wall down or allows a tree to fall on the wall, we accept that. It goes back into nature. The clay goes back into the earth. The earth is the one that owns it. Our Indian philosophy is that anything on the earth should be respected.”

In 1996, after a wildfire scorched a large petroglyph panel in a backcountry area of Mesa Verde, park officials talked of perhaps trying to protect the remainder by attaching it with an adhesive or coating it. But after consultation with Native American tribes, officials decided to leave it for the elements.

That’s how pots, artifacts and burial sites should be treated, according to Pino — left to return to nature. “The pot belongs to our forefathers and to Mother Earth,” he said. Disturbing burial sites is an especially grievous act, Pino said.

“Any time you start digging up burials, that’s a higher encroachment on the spirit world. When you start digging up graves you’re cutting off the migration of the dead spirit to the point of origin so they could be given another assignment. I think that’s the highest level of disrespect.” Most people would not want their own ancestors’ final resting places plundered, Pino said.

“How would they feel if we went — or if they went themselves, and I wouldn’t put it past them — to dig up the remains of their forefathers because they have treasures with the burials?”

Today, when Pueblo peoples prepare offerings to be buried with someone, they tear up or put holes in the offerings so no one will want to dig them up again. But collectors will pay money even for even broken Ancestral Puebloan pottery, Pino said.

“Recently I personally have thought we were going down the right path in repatriating some of the human remains” under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, he said.

“We’ve had some reburials and reinterments. I thought we were all going down that path of finally righting a wrong, and when there are still people out there committing the same injustice as their forefathers did to the remains of our forefathers, that’s really disturbing.

“It’s like we’re repeating history.”

From July 2009.