BMAP artifacts' fate in question; grass roots groups want say

By Cindy Yurth
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, July 12, 2013

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When Peabody Western Coal Company started mining on Black Mesa, it had no idea it was about to start one of the largest archeological digs ever in North America, but that is exactly what happened.

In the way of all that coal were hundreds of prehistoric dwellings, tens of thousands of stone tools and clay pots, and the bones of 200 Navajos, Hopis and Anasazis. Under federal law, the company was required to hire archeologists -- 200 at the peak of the dig in the 1970s -- to excavate and curate the items.

The artifacts were sent to the Center for Archeological Investigations at Southern Illinois University, which was charged with cataloguing and preserving them until the Navajo and Hopi tribes wanted them back. Under direction from the tribes, the center permits only bona fide members of either tribe to view the items, and only if they have permission from their tribal authorities.

So far, according to the center's acting director, Mark Wagner, there's been no formal request for the items from either tribe.

Wagner said there's no particular reason the collection went to Southern Illinois, other than that the archeologist who directed the team was from there and the CAI conforms to rigorous federal standards for housing delicate collections.

"The collection could just as easily be curated in the Southwest," he said.

Groups representing the people of Black Mesa who were displaced by the mine, such as the Black Mesa Coalition and the two groups both calling themselves the Forgotten People, feel the people should have a say in the items' disposition, but there have been some angry exchanges between the groups as to how that should be done and which people should have a say.

Meanwhile, the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department wrote to the U.S. Office of Surface Mining in a May 21 letter that Historic Preservation is the only entity designated by the tribe to receive the artifacts or review the contracts associated with them, and the office should not allow any groups direct access to the collection without the department's approval.

Tribal members have various opinions about what should be done with the relics. Some would like to see a special museum built to house them, but some believe the items, at least the bones, should be ceremonially reburied, and others would like them maintained at an existing university facility similar to CAI but closer to home.

"It brings up all sorts of interesting cultural property issues," said James W. Zion, an attorney who represented the Forgotten People until it tore into two groups during a trial last year.

Whatever happens, said Don Yellowman, president of one faction of Forgotten People, "the process needs to be transparent and it needs to involve the chapters where the artifacts were found."

Yellowman recently traveled to Wyoming to attend Peabody's shareholders meeting and speak directly to the board of directors, which, he said, promised to involve grass roots Navajos in any decision it is allowed to make about the artifacts. But since the collection technically belongs to the Navajo and Hopi tribes, the company's involvement may be minimal unless it ends up building a museum to house the things.

Ron Maldonado, programs manager for the Historic Preservation Department's Cultural Compliance Section, said the department is in the process of drafting a statement on the artifacts.

Hopi Cultural Preservation Director Leigh Kuwanwiwsima did not return a phone call Friday.