TOPAWA – Joseph Joaquin sat beneath a mesquite tree at the base of Baboquivari Peak and gestured toward the mountain range and desert plants.
“The man we call I’itoi – we call him our creator – he’s the one who created all of this,” said Joaquin, the cultural resource specialist for the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona.
Baboquivari Peak is sacred to the Tohono O’odham people because that is where I’itoi lives. I’itoi taught the Tohono O’odham how to survive in the desert where they have resided for countless generations.
But the Tohono O’odham, like many tribes, believe that their creator and the spirits in their world are not at peace because of decades of government-sanctioned and commercial looting of Native American graves.
The spirits of the Tohono O’odham ancestors who were dug up from their graves still roam the area and “cause problems throughout our lands,” Joaquin said.
A 1990 law aimed to return the estimated 180,000 human remains and millions of cultural and sacred items museums had accumulated over the years, but critics say that law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, is not working.
Federal reports estimate that more than 70 percent of human remains that were in the control of federal agencies and museums when the law passed are still being held there.
Like many tribes the Tohono O’odham think the problem is how the law was written.
Critics say the law gave museums and federal agencies too much power to determine whether human remains and cultural items qualify for repatriation. By law, the decision making is supposed to happen in consultation with Native American tribes, but many, including the Tohono O’odham, feel the burden of proof falls unfairly on the tribe.
“They said, ‘No you have to prove that this is yours, prove that this item is sacred to you, prove…’ Why do I have to prove it? I know,” Joaquin said. “You didn’t come and say, ‘I’m going to take this thing.’ You just took it, but now you’re telling us we have to prove it.”
Joaquin said it is hard to overcome the cultural barrier between the “outside world” and the native world.
When NAGPRA passed, Joaquin said he told the tribal council that he would go to the Arizona State Museum in Tucson and see if they would really give everything back.
The museum had the mummified remains of a 10,000-year-old man who had been taken out of a cave on the reservation more than 50 years before.
“Phone calls, letters from all over the country came to my office and said, ‘You can’t do that. They’re there to be studied. They’re there to educate people,” Joaquin said of the remains. “I said, ‘They’ve been there 50 years and you didn’t study them?'”
Joaquin got the mummified remains back, and the tribe reburied them.
“They don’t belong stashed in some shelf in a museum or a university or somewhere else,” Joaquin said. “They belong here and it helps the tribes, for our people, it gets us back on track of who we are.”