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Working Together on the Border

Randall H. McGuire


When Kurt Dongoske asked me to write for the Working Together column of the SAA Bulletin, I agreed with some apprehension and misgiving. My uneasiness springs from the fact that the project under discussion is ongoing. Although we have gone out of our way to consult with Native Americans, and so far this process has gone well, there remains the chance of misunderstanding, unanticipated events, or differences of conviction to destroy the existing good will. This process of consultation involves people from three different cultures, and two different nation states, further increasing the chance of something going wrong. I was reluctant to write this article both because of this uncertainty, and because of a fear the article itself might jinx or compromise the process. Kurt argued that I should go ahead, pointing out that even when all participants approach the process with good will, uncertainty, apprehension, and the possibility for misunderstanding are an ever-present aspect of archaeologists working together with native peoples. And, he is right.

Elisa Villalpando of the Centro del Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) of Sonora and I are currently conducting excavations at the site of Cerro de Trincheras. The site is located about 110 km south of the United States-Mexican border, by the town of Trincheras, Sonora, Mexico. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation (SBR9320224) and sponsored by both Binghamton University and the Centro INAH de Sonora.

Cerro de Trincheras is one of the most spectacular and largest archaeological sites in Sonora. It is a late prehistoric Trincheras Tradition village (A.D. 1300 to 1450) built on an isolated volcanic hill. The hill rises more than 150 m from the flat desert plain, and covers about 100 ha. The prehistoric inhabitants of the site built over 880 terraces on the hill, and then constructed brush and mud houses on these terraces. Very little archaeological research has been done in Sonora, and our project is the first archaeological excavation at Cerro de Trincheras.

Historically, Tohano O'odham people lived in the region around the site, and they claim the site as an ancestral village. Today, the vast majority of Tohano O'odham people live in the United States, but a few hundred still live in several villages to the north and west of Trincheras. The Tohano O'odham consider themselves as one nation divided by the European-imposed United States-Mexican border. The border is a harsh reality of Tohano O'odham life that creates very different social relationships and living experiences for the people on opposite sides. The United States and Mexico, however, regard the Tohano O'odham as citizens of the respective nation states where they live.

The modern cultural, social, and political context of our project is complex. Archaeologists and Native Americans come to the process of consultation with very different conceptions about the past and very different cultural and political interests. Our attempts to work together in this project necessarily involve three cultures, at least two languages, and the laws of two nation states. The history that created this complexity also created complex power relations. In 1848 the United States seized one-third of the state of Mexico and in 1854 negotiated the Gadsden Purchase to acquire southern Arizona. Today, Mexico exists in the shadow of the United States, and this power relationship tints all social relations. The Tohano O'odham regard both the United States and Mexico as colonial invaders. Yet, an O'odham from the Tohano O'odham Nation in Arizona is treated in Mexico as a citizen of the United States.

In Mexico all archaeological materials are legally the heritage of the Mexican people. All archaeological sites and artifacts are property of the national government, irregardless of the ownership of the land that they are found on. INAH is the Mexican government agency that administers, researches, and preserves the national archaeology. Any negotiations concerning the disposition of burials and sacred goods must be made with INAH, and only INAH has the authority for repatriation to Native American nations or communities.

Repatriation and reburial have not surfaced as highly visible indigenous issues in Mexico. Although I suspect that many Native American communities in Mexico hold similar feelings about these issues as their U. S. brethren, they have not expressed their feelings in a high profile national debate. Mexican archaeologists are generally untroubled by the repatriation and reburial debates that have dominated U.S. archaeology over the last decade. They are also highly suspect of any attempts to import the conflict to Mexico.

Since the passing of NAGPRA and a state reburial law, archaeologists and Native Americans in southern Arizona have developed fairly regularized means and procedures for consultation on archaeological research. All of the Native American nations and communities of southern Arizona have either a committee or a designated individual within their governmental structure to handle this consultation. Over the last five years relations between archaeologists and Tohano O'odham people in southern Arizona have ranged from bitter conflict to cordial cooperation. The Tohano O'odham have generally allowed the nondestructive analysis of skeletons and mortuary goods before their return to the nation and reburial.

Elisa Villalpando and I have been conducting archaeological research in northern Sonora since 1985. Up until the current project, this research has been survey, surface collection, and mapping, with no excavation. Before each previous field season we sent copies of our proposals and our reports to the O'odham communities of southern Arizona (Tohano O'odham Nation, Gila River Indian Community, Salt River Indian Community, and Ak Chin Indian Community). In the spring of 1988 a delegation from the San Xaviar District of the Tohano O'odham Nation visited our survey project in the Altar Valley of Sonora. Except for this visit we had received very little response to our efforts.

In 1984 the French Center for Studies of Mexico and Central America launched an ethnoarchaeolgical project at Quitovac, Sonora. The French researchers obtained permits from INAH's Consejo de Arqueología in Mexico City, but did not contact the traditional authorities of the local native communities. The project ultimately ended in bitter conflict with the Tohano O'odham.

Quitovac is one of the most sacred places in the O'odham world, and one of the handful of surviving Tohano O'odham villages in Sonora. The O'odham creation story says that at Quitovac the cultural hero, I'Itoi, killed a monster that threatened to destroy the people. To celebrate this event Tohano O'odham from Sonora and Arizona gather at Quitovac each year for the Wikita ceremony. In 1989, after the ceremony, the French researchers systematically mapped and collected the ceremonial ground. They also excavated some graves and in the blessed cave where the Tohano O'odham kept the sacred eagle feathers for the Wikita ceremony.

Tohano O'odham people objected to these excavations claiming that the individuals who had given the French permission to excavate were not Indians, and that recent burials had been disturbed. The Tohano O'odham cultural affairs committee from Sells, Ariz. took a leading role in the negotiations that followed. The Centro INAH de Sonora, in Hermosillo, obtained the skeletons and artifacts from the French Center for Studies of Mexico and Central America, and in 1993 transferred them to the Tohano O'odham cultural affairs committee, who then arranged for their reburial at Quitovac in April of that year. This was the first time in the history of INAH that archaeological materials legally in INAH's possession were reburied.

In designing the excavation project for the spring of 1995 we felt that we had to make a greater effort at consultation with the O'odham than we had in the past. We came to this position both because we would be excavating, and because of the changing relations between archaeologists and Native Americans in the region.

Excavation, as opposed to surface survey, greatly increased the chance that we would disturb burials, or sacred objects, or both, in our research. In 1991 we had mapped the site and identified a large, badly looted, cremation cemetery. Hoping to avoid burials, we proposed to not excavate this cemetery. However, we realized that we might encounter burials in the other portions of the site.

The experience of the French was foremost in our minds as we wanted to avoid the misunderstandings and abuses that had happened at Quitovac. The Centro INAH de Sonora had played a leading role in returning the burials and sacred objects to the Tohano O'odham. The organization was also involved in negotiations with the Tohano O'odham cultural affairs committee about plans to develop the Sierra Pinacate as a Mexican national park.

Finally, we felt that it might be easier now than in the past to initiate and maintain a process of consultation. The cultural affairs committees and offices of the Native American nations and communities of southern Arizona made it easier for us to contact key individuals in those communities. Once initiated we also thought it would be easier to maintain the process with standing committees or offices that would survive changes in tribal governments.

We initially contacted the Tohano O'odham cultural affairs committee by sending it a copy of our grant proposal for the project. A meeting, arranged for September 1994 in Trincheras, included a committee representative, an Anglo lawyer working for the Committee, and representatives of the local community and INAH. The meeting concluded cordially; we agreed that if we did encounter any burials, we would excavate them so they would not be looted, and then contact the cultural affairs committee.

The Tohano O'odham were pleased we had consulted with them concerning a project in Mexico, and suggested that we also contact other indigenous nations and communities in Arizona such as the Pasqua Yaqui Indian community and the Hopi Nation. We subsequently sent all of the O'odham groups, the Yaqui, and the Hopi copies of our proposal. Only the Ak Chin community and the Hopi Nation responded to our query. Both indicated that we should deal directly with the Tohano O'odham Nation.

We began fieldwork at the beginning of February 1995. Within the first few weeks we had located several possible cremations, one definite cremation, and two inhumations. We left the cremations in place. They did not contain ceramic vessels, and we did not think they were obvious enough to attract looters. Our workers, however, immediately recognized the bones in the inhumations as human, even though none of them contained extensive grave offerings. We excavated the inhumations immediately in fear they would be looted if we did not.

On March 4, we met with two members of the cultural affairs committee and their attorney in Caborca, Sonora. It was agreed that we would be allowed to do nondestructive analysis on the inhumations and the remains would be reburied afterward. The only point of contention was how long we would keep the bones before reburial. Because we had not yet spoken with a physical anthropologist about doing the analysis, we wanted a year to get the work done. The Tohano O'odham clearly wanted the work done more quickly.

On March 13, 1995, a delegation from the cultural affairs committee visited us in the field. Four members of the committee and their attorney came. The visit was quite cordial, for the most part. Based on conversations at this meeting it was decided to back fill the known and possible cremations without excavating them.

At the present time the consultation process between the Cerros de Trincheras excavation project and the Tohano O'odham nation appears to be going well. Relations remain cordial, and we have so far been able to come to mutually satisfactory agreements. After analysis, the skeletons will be turned over to the Tohano O'odham. The few artifacts found with the burials will also be turned over to the Tohano O'odham at the same time.

We hope that consultation will continue to go well when we start our second field season in February 1996. Given the complex social, cultural, and power relationships working among three cultures and two nation states, the chance of misunderstandings remains high. We also have some concern that all of our dealings have been with the Tohano O'odham nation in Sell, Arizona. We have not talked to the various Tohano O'odham communities in Sonora, in large part because they are not as well organized on this issue as their Arizona brethren, making it difficult to know whom to contact. But, as Kurt pointed out when he convinced me to write this article, uncertainty, apprehension, and the possibility for misunderstanding, are an ever-present aspect of working together with Native Americans.

Randall H. McGuire is a professor in anthropology at the State University of New York at Binghamton

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