The Tohono O'odham Nation will soon rebury the remains of nearly 200 of their ancestors, dug up in the late 1970s and early '80s by teams of archaeologists working on what was then known as the Anamax/Rosemont site.

They fear further disturbance of their ancestors' graves if permission is given to Rosemont Copper to dig an open-pit copper mine in the foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains — an area rich with archaeological evidence of Hohokam and other settlements.

If that happens, the Tohono O'odham will do what they already have done with thousands of cremated and skeletal remains dug up in the name of science or in advance of pipelines, freeways and housing developments.

They will bless them and rebury them in ceremonies that Joe Joaquin has a tough time calling traditional.

"There was no ceremony for reburial, because we don't do that," said Joaquin, who has coordinated repatriation activities for the nation since the late 1980s.

Joaquin is busier than ever these days, working with colleague Peter Steere in the cultural affairs office of the tribe to pore over inventories of human remains, associated funerary objects, sacred items or objects of cultural patrimony compiled by the nation's museums under the terms of a 1990 law called the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA.

"I'm still fighting the scientists," said Joaquin, adding that he has never understood why archaeologists needed to study his ancestors' bones.

"If they want to know how people lived and what they ate, they should ask their descendants," he said. "What are these people doing on a shelf? They should be down here in the dirt where we put them."

The European culture doesn't send its own dug-up remains for study, he noted.

"That kind of disparity led Native Americans to vocally protest the desecration of their ancestors," said Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, curator and NAGPRA coordinator for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

He said the movement toward repatriation is often traced to 1971, when archaeologists working in advance of a highway project near Glenwood, Iowa, uncovered 28 skeletons.

They quickly reburied 26 that were of European descent in the hallowed ground of a nearby cemetery. Two skeletons identified as Indian were sent to the University of Iowa for curation as part of a museum collection. It became a rallying cry.

It took two decades, but Congress ultimately passed NAGPRA.

"NAGPRA can be viewed as a major human-rights advance," Steere said. "It returned a fundamental right to the native community."

At the time, it was viewed with trepidation.

"In 1989, there was this huge fear that museums would be emptied — there would be nothing left in museums to study," Colwell-Chanthaphonh said. "As we near the 20th year (under NAGPRA), we can say categorically that hasn't happened. Rather than limiting research, it has inspired more research, better research, new research that wasn't done before 1990."

If nothing else, museums are rediscovering what sits on their shelves.

The Arizona State Museum, which is repository for a lion's share of archaeological artifacts in the region, lists 5,930 sets of remains in its inventory, most of which, 4,904, can be directly affiliated with an existing tribe. It has repatriated 693 sets of remains under NAGPRA. It also lists 6,962 "funerary objects," or items buried with the remains, including pots into which cremated remains have been placed.

The Rosemont remains were uncovered when Anamax Mining Co. proposed a land swap with the U.S. Forest Service. Archaeologists surveyed 14 Hohokam sites that existed in the Santa Rita foothills between A.D. 600 and 1200, including a major settlement with a ball court and two cemetery sites for both cremated and full burials.

The 193 individual remains were recovered from 11 separate sites.

Rosemont Copper has proposed its open-pit mine on private and public land in the general area of that original site. The company "was aware of what's gone on out there as far as knowing what needs to be mitigated," said Kathy Arnold, Rosemont's director of environmental and regulatory affairs. Rosemont specifically avoided the "ball court site" in its plans, she said.

"We're planning on doing everything we can to do it right and, of course, follow all the laws," Arnold said.

Steere said he and Joaquin met with archaeologists from SWCA, an archaeology firm, who are surveying the site as part of a draft environmental-impact statement being done by the Forest Service. He said they have found 20 to 30 new sites.

The Tribal Council has taken the position that it does not want any sites disturbed, Steere said.

Gayle Hartmann, president of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, a group opposing Rosemont's mine plan, said the company downplays the difficulty of developing that archaeologically rich area. It will be required "to do a lot more excavation out there," she said.

Some archaeologists still argue that scientific knowledge will suffer with the loss of artifacts, including human remains, but most have come around, said John McClelland, NAGPRA coordinator for the Arizona State Museum.

Practically speaking, he said, "some of these collections sat on shelves for years and years, and nobody did anything with them."

Sorting through them has been an education in itself, he said. "In having to come up with the inventories, we've learned more about the accession history. I'm reading field notes from archaeologists from 1915. There is just something wonderful about that."

Eventually McClelland said, the Arizona State Museum will empty its shelves of all human remains — "at least the North American collection."

Nationally, museums and federal agencies have inventoried 153,795 individual remains — some entire skeletons, some as small as a bone fragment. As of March 31, 37,998 had been the subject of notices of return, said Jaime Lavallee, of the national NAGPRA office, which is run by the National Park Service.

Many of the remains, 115,797 at present, are not identified as to tribe, Lavallee said.

"There are a number of them that will probably never be identified as to specific tribe, because the information about where they were obtained is not there, but there may be an arrangement where a consortium of tribes may come together and say, 'This is what we would like to happen,' " McClelland said.

McClelland said it makes sense to return items to tribes, especially those such as the Tohono O'odham that are developing their own museums and cultural centers.

"There is a culture there that really treasures this as their heritage," he said.

Remains and funerary objects never get to the new Tohono O'odham Nation Cultural Center and Museum in Topawa, Joaquin said. They are kept in a separate place until it's time for a yearly reburial ceremony. The location is kept secret, and only tribal members can attend.

The cultural and sacred objects are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, said Joaquin and Steere, who make recommendations to the Tribal Council on where they should go.

Some may be kept at the cultural center's repository, a climate-controlled warehouse.

Others will be returned to the reservation's districts.

Restoring remains and sacred objects to their rightful place has been the focus of Joaquin's life for more than two decades.

One of his early successes came before NAGPRA was passed and took place outside the country.

Joaquin successfully argued for the return of objects taken from Quitovac in Sonora by a French archaeology team. "It took maybe two years of negotiation," he said, with Mexican museum officials and the French Embassy.

Among the items was half a carved stone that was said to be the heart of a monster slain by the O'odham creator, I'itoi. "It comes up in one of our creation stories," Joaquin said.

The O'odham of Quitovac blamed problems they were having on the loss of the objects. "Things like this happen," he said, "and they affect people."

The items were returned in 1992, Joaquin said — "500 years after Columbus got here."

"If (scientists) want to know how people lived and what they ate, they should ask their descendants.

What are these people doing on a shelf? They should be down here in the dirt where we put them."

Joe Joaquin, who has organized repatriation efforts for the Tohono O'odham Nation since the 1980s

Contact reporter Tom Beal at 573-4158 or tbeal@azstarnet.com.