by Mark Sanders – guest author
Almost a year ago to the day, the Phoenix New Times reported on large-scale site disturbances at Amity Pueblo, a long-abandoned Native American settlement located in the eastern Arizona village of Eagar. Native American remains dating to 900 years ago were unearthed in April 2011, when Arizona Game and Fish Department crews bulldozed the archaeological site for the construction of a public fishing pond. Tribal leaders from Arizona and New Mexico were understandably outraged. However, when tribal officials reported the desecration, both the state agency as well as the federal lead agency overseeing the project – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – ignored demands for immediate corrective action. The Zuni tribe appealed to the media in hopes that a public campaign would help their cause, and the agencies involved promised to comply.
In the year since the news story came out, and despite the ripple effects of the article through the national media, nothing has been done. Today, human remains are still on site, exposed to the elements as a second winter is setting in. “Nothing’s going on,” says Kurt Dongoske, lead archaeologist for the Pueblo of Zuni. “I just got an email maybe late last week from the Fish and Wildlife Service saying they’re in negotiations with Arizona Game and Fish, and that they’ll be in touch with tribes in couple weeks. It was very cryptic.”
This echoes a recent email I received from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administrator Christine Tincher. When asked for an update on Amity Pueblo, her response was the following: “We consulted with the Tribes regarding mitigation needs. Now we are working with Arizona Game and Fish Department, the grantee who began construction of a pond, to develop a plan to implement mitigation. We will continue to consult with the Tribes and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation [the federal agency that insures compliance with federal law] and the Arizona State Historic Preservation Officer to work towards a solution.”
Dongoske sent a strongly worded email dated October 31 to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. In the message, he writes, “The apologies offered to Zuni from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department regarding this disturbance appear to be disingenuous and empty based on their lack of concern to implement measures to appropriately and respectfully collect and reinter the disturbed human remains. Moreover, this lack of action further reinforces the Zuni perception that Zuni cultural/religious values are unimportant to the Federal and state governments.” He has yet to hear a response from the ACHP.
On November 12, 2013, the Society for American Archaeology, a 7,000-member organization for archaeologists practicing in the Americas, wrote to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. Hers is the federal department that oversees the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The letter similarly pleaded for action, as there seemed to be no progress in the three years since the incident. The letter reads in part, “We are not interested in laying blame or pointing fingers; we simply want a just solution for the ancestors that have been disturbed, their descendants, and the American public.”
Jeff Altschul is the president of the SAA. In a recent interview, he expressed his frustration with Fish and Wildlife, and explained why his organization opted to bypass Fish and Wildlife administrators and instead write to the Secretary herself. “It seems to me that this kind of action should fall way below the Secretary of the Interior,” he says, adding, “I would like to think if it got all the way up to the Secretary, she could fix it pretty quick.”
On November 14, the 200-member nonprofit Arizona Archaeological Council also sent a letter to Secretary Jewell, similarly urging action on the Amity Pueblo debacle. It reads in part, “We urge the Secretary of the Department of the Interior to intervene on their behalf and to direct the US Fish and Wildlife Service to finalize an agreement acceptable to all parties….” To date, the Secretary has not responded to either organization.
During a recent interview, Arizona Game and Fish deputy director, Gary Hovatter, apologized repeatedly for his agency’s mismanagement at Amity Pueblo, adding that his agency has been “rolling the dice” for decades without an incident like this. When the site damage of 2011 occurred, he says Game and Fish has entered unknown territory.
“You ask, ‘Why are we moving so slowly on this?,” Hovatter remarks. “And I say, ‘Compared to what?’ We’ve never had anything like this happen before.” He believes that “probably in the next several months” there will be an attempt to agree on how to move forward, but with so many different interests involved – federal and state agencies, plus the sometimes conflicting opinions among the tribes on how to manage human remains – an answer may not be coming any time soon.
Mark Sanders is an archaeologist and journalist living in Denver. He can be reached through his website, cortexarchaeology.com.