Tohono O’odham: border wall disturbs ancestral graves

A petition from O’odham Voice Against the Wall, posted to journalist Brenda Norrell’s Censored, blog, June 15:

We Demand the Return of Human Remains Unearthed During a Recent Desecration of a Sacred Burial Ground
On May 17th and May 21st of 2007 the remains of at least three humans were unearthed during the construction of a border zone “Vehicle Barrier” wall.

These remains were found buried near the International Border, inside of Tohono O’odham Nation lands in Arizona. The unearthed people are the direct ancestors of five families living in the Ali Jegk community of the Tohono O’odham Nation.

The remains are currently in the possession of the tribal government’s cultural authority – an institution that has a non-O’odham director. Initially, when the remains were unearthed during construction of the “Vehicle Barrier,” the tribal government authorities stopped the construction to investigate the findings.

Unfortunately, they failed to protect the remains from desecration as is required of them under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA).

According to O’odham witnesses that were employed by the Department of Homeland Security as monitors, three non-O’odham workers removed the remains from the burial site. The remains were then bagged, boxed and removed from the location.

According to the National Guard commander, the three non-O’odham workers that removed the remains were archaeologists hired by the Tohono O’odham Nation. In direct violation of NAGPRA, the three hired archaeologists and their cultural director failed to report the finding to the tribal government until two days had passed.

In another direct violation of NAGPRA laws, the remains were removed from Tohono O’odham lands and taken outside of the Nation’s jurisdiction to be stored in Ajo, Arizona. However, the remains were subsequently returned back to tribal custody. The remains are now in the possession of the Tohono O’odham Nation tribal government.

Despite the pleas of area residents that the ancestral remains be given back for reburial, the tribal government is refusing to return them, citing a federal law that prohibits them from doing so. However, the area residents (who are direct decedents of the unearthed ancestors) state that the federal law does not apply to this situation as the law only necessitates that the remains be held in custody if there are no living ancestors to whom they can be released.

In this case, since there are living ancestors, the law does not apply and the remains should be immediately released back to the area residents for reburial. The Tohono O’odham Nation tribal government has neglected its constitutional directive that mandates them to protect the Him’dag – the O’odham way of life. They have allowed the disturbance of a sacred burial site and have allowed non-O’odham people to handle these sacred remains. They now hold sacred, ancient relatives in bags and boxes.

The elder descendants of the ancestors whose remains were unearthed held a meeting on May 23. They cried for their relatives and are demanding that the remains be immediately returned. The Elders were very grief stricken at the great disrespect shown toward their relatives’ remains.

Margaret Garcia cried and asked, “Why do these non-O’odham continue to mistreat us? We are humans, we do not go to their [Anglo] graves and dig them up and put them in boxes.” Julia Merino also cried and told the people at the meeting that she knew how it felt to go away somewhere and long for home. She said that is how the unearthed relatives feel right now. She asked those in attendance to do whatever they could to get the remains returned as soon as possible. Frances Aguila stated that the unearthed ancestors were her direct relatives and named a Great-great grandfather that was buried in the location. She also stated that there were other remains much older then that – a point that all the relatives restated.

Ofelia Rivas stated that her deceased aunt, Mary Merino, was the last person born at the abandoned village where she passed away two years ago at the age of 90. Ofelia also named three of her Great-great grandfathers that were buried in the area and stated that many more relatives dating back more than seven generations are buried in the area.

This petition is demanding that this great atrocity must stop! This petition is demanding that the Tohono O’odham Nation tribal government immediately release the remains that were unearthed and immediately return them to the local community for a proper, traditional reburial! Please sign and forward this petition to all your friends, relatives and networks.

See our last posts on the border struggle, the Tohono O’odham and other Native American land struggles.