Kearns: Federal grave robbing of Taino remains

by: Rick Kearns / Indian Country Today
© Indian Country Today November 23, 2007. All Rights Reserved

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and its associates took ancient indigenous remains and artifacts from a newly discovered site in Puerto Rico in late October and flew them to a lab in Atlanta, Ga., for tests. There are laws in Puerto Rico prohibiting anyone from removing these kinds of materials from the island, and there are Taino people, real live human beings, who are furious over this latest episode of federal body snatching.

Probably in response to the public complaints of Puerto Rican scholars and archaeologists, the feds have promised to return everything that they have stolen, although we have to take their word for what has recently appeared as the list of items that will be returned.

As Yogi Berra once said, ''This is deja vu all over again.''

For Puerto Ricans of all kinds, especially for those of us with Taino roots - and that means most Puerto Ricans - we've heard this line before and we have no reason to believe them. On top of everything else, there is a sad echo effect at play here: It's the racist way in which the United States treats Puerto Rico and the way some officials treat Tainos or even the idea of Tainos that creates a sickening echo, one that keeps ringing in our ears and should be telling us something.

That something is to gain sovereignty for the island. It's the only way we can protect our heritage, our people and even the remains of our ancestors, as our Native cousins in North America have learned over and over again.

The series of events that lead to this latest outrage played out fairly quickly. Within the last few months, the Corps started clearing a section of southern Puerto Rico for the construction of a dam, for the purpose of preventing flooding that is all too common in that region. At some point the Corps hired New South Associates, an archaeological and historical consulting firm, to handle any potential discoveries. It has been widely known that the area north of the city of Ponce was home to some major Taino ceremonial sites; the centers at Tibes and Caguana are good examples of these highly developed community areas.

Near the end of October, a major Taino site was unearthed during the construction process. Archaeologists from both the United States and Puerto Rico are hailing it as being the best-preserved pre-Columbian site in the Caribbean, with the potential to reveal many aspects of Taino and pre-Taino life in the area, from eating habits to spiritual ceremonies. The newly discovered site has a ritual ball field (known as a batey) that measures 130 feet by 160 feet, surrounded by giant stones etched with petroglyphs, one of which portrays a masculine human figure with legs of a frog. Along with the plaza, many ceramic pieces were unearthed as well as graves of ancient peoples, some of whom were buried facedown with their legs bent at the knees.

Experts are already estimating that the site includes materials dating back as far as 600 A.D. with other items from approximately 1,500 A.D., a few years after the invaders arrived.

These facts are the only points of agreement. Otherwise, the tableau turns into a crime scene.

According to members of the General Council of Borinquen Tainos, leading Puerto Rican archaeologists and scholars from the island's Institute of Culture, the Corps and New South destroyed untold amounts of artifacts and human remains with bulldozers and backhoes. Puerto Rican archaeologists and local Taino leaders then protested these procedures, eventually embarrassing the federal grave robbers enough so that they had to halt the excavation. Sadly, the official chicanery did not stop there.

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1 comment:

Speaking Boricua said...

Sad. I really hope the Feds can keep their promise.