May 20, 1999
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The Long Voyage Home

Peabody returns Native American Remains to Pecos Pueblo

By Ken Gewertz
Gazette Staff

Rubie Watson (left), Peabody Museum director, receives thanks from Pete Toya, War Chief of the Pueblo of Jemez, after a press conference at the Peabody Museum. Photo by Jon Chase.

On Tuesday afternoon, an enormous tractor-trailer full of human bones stood waiting on narrow Divinity Avenue outside the Peabody Museum.

While such a tableau might seem grisly or macabre to an outsider, to one particular group it is a source of great joy. They are the people of the Pecos Pueblo, located 25 miles southeast of Santa Fe, N.M., descendents of the people whose bones filled the huge truck.

This week, the bones are on their way home, the largest single repatriation of Native American remains since the passage of the NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), in 1990.

The remains were collected between 1915 and 1929 by Harvard archaeologist Alfred V. Kidder as part of his excavation of the Pecos Pueblo. Kidder also found buildings, pottery, baskets, and many other objects. The excavation was scientifically significant in a number of ways. It was the first application of modern stratigraphic methods of archaeology to a North American site, and it established what came to be known as the Pecos Chronology, a system for dating sites throughout the Southwest.

The enormous collection of human remains that Kidder found has been extensively studied, not only by anthropologists, but by medical researchers as well, leading to significant insights into osteoporosis, head injuries, and the development of dental cavities.

But what was ignored in all of this, at least until relatively recently, was that the bones belonged to individuals who had living descendants.

When Kidder began excavating Pecos, it had been empty for about 70 years. Once a large and powerful settlement situated on a busy trade route, Pecos Pueblo had declined due to disease and warfare. In 1838 the last survivors went to live at the closely allied Jemez Pueblo.

Peabody Museum Director Rubie Watson (center) hands a bowl to Jemez Pueblo Governor Raymond Gachupin (left) and Pecos Pueblo Governor Ruben Sando at a ceremony Tuesday for the repatriation of Native American remains to tribal lands in New Mexico. Photo by Rose Lincoln.

But although they were forced to leave their pueblo, which in its heyday in the 15th and 16th centuries comprised more than 2,000 inhabitants living in elaborate four- and five-story structures, the Pecos people never forgot where they had come from and what they had left behind.

Then came NAGPRA, mandating that museums return human remains, sacred objects, and cultural patrimony to their rightful owners. Soon afterward, negotiations with the Pecos and Jemez people began, and in 1996 a delegation from the two tribes visited the Museum to see the collection Kidder had assembled years before.

This past Tuesday, May 18, representatives from the tribes returned along with members of the National Park Service (Pecos Pueblo is now part of Pecos National Historical Park) and other interested parties to officially take possession of the remains.

Flanked by two enormous carved totem poles in a Peabody Museum room devoted to Indians of the Northwest, the tribal representatives filed in and took seats at a long table. Each wore a different colored shirt. There was white, deep red, turquoise, dark blue, and purple, with sashes of embroidered geometric designs. All wore spotless white pants and moccasins, and some had bands tied around the heads. As they entered, the room of journalists, faculty, and Museum officials fell suddenly silent.

Museum Director Rubie Watson called on Pete Toya, war chief of the Jemez Pueblo, to offer an opening prayer. Speaking in a cadenced rumble in his native language of Towa, he spoke for perhaps a minute.

Watson remarked that although the journey of the Pecos remains from New Mexico to Cambridge and back again has been a painful one, "there has always been hope," and she quoted her favorite Chinese saying, that "A journey of 1,000 miles begins with the first step."

Ruben Sando, governor of the Pecos Pueblo, said that while "there have been many years of struggle, the people of Pecos are very grateful to have the ancestors come home. With the blessings and the hard work of our leaders and our Peabody comrades, this thing has come about. It shows that anything is possible if you have good communication and teamwork."

Regis Pecos, commissioner of Indian affairs for New Mexico and a member of the Cochiti Pueblo, which is midway between the Jemez Pueblo and the Pecos ruins, called the event "a new beginning for all of us after the many dark days in our history." He praised "those who stood strong so that at the end of the century we still have our own languages, our songs and dances, our remaining homelands, our families and sense of community."

Later, at a press conference in the Museum, Raymond Gachupin, governor of the Jemez Pueblo, explained why it was so upsetting to his people to have the Pecos remains removed from the ground and shipped across country. "We believe that once a human being is laid to rest, that's where they need to be." Nevertheless, he said that his people feel no anger or resentment for what happened and that the tribe's negotiations with Harvard have gone extremely smoothly.

The truck containing the bones of 1,912 individuals, which are packed in acid-free cardboard boxes, began its journey to Pecos Pueblo on the morning of Wednesday, May 19.

At the same time in New Mexico, hundreds of residents of the Jemez Pueblo accompanied by supporters from other Native American groups set out on foot to retrace the 80-mile route that the last remaining Pecos people took during their evacuation in 1838. They expect to meet the truck on Friday in Pecos National Historical Park, where the bones will be reburied.

"That will really be something to see, when the people are reunited with their ancestors," said William Whatley, an anthropologist who serves as the tribe's cultural preservation officer. "There's just been incredible excitement over this event."

The bones will be reburied on Saturday. According to Whately, the remains will be buried in a mass grave which was dug in such a way as not to uproot any trees or disturb other archaeological remains. Tribal leaders working with the National Park Service used data from ground-penetrating radar supplied by NASA to accomplish this.

Two members of the Museum, assistant director Barbara Isaac and curatorial associate in bioarchaeology Patricia Capone, are traveling to New Mexico to take part in the celebrations. Their presence testifies to the intense involvement of the Museum with this and other repatriations over the past decade.

Watson remarked that for the Museum, dealing with Native Americans around repatriation has initiated "an intense period of self-examination that will lead to new ideas and new relationships with indigenous peoples throughout the United States. It is a collaboration that has sometimes been painful and difficult because the way is often not marked, but it has brought museums and tribal members together to an extent that has perhaps never been seen before."


Copyright 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College