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Weekly Alibi Barefoot in the Park

New Age Ceremonies at National Parks Are More Than a Headache

By Brendan Doherty

AUGUST 10, 1998:  When the X Family received the news of their son's sudden death, they were saddened. In the cryptic instructions left to the family in John X's will were specific instructions to cremate John and scatter his ashes in Chaco Canyon. The family, living in the Midwest, felt that they had no choice but to make the 2,000-mile drive out to the remote high desert steppe land, to a place they had never been before, to say goodbye to their son, brother and cousin, John. They drove to the park, opened the box, unscrewed the top of the metal container and with reverence, lifted John's pieces and dust into the air and all throughout the ruins of Chaco Canyon.

It's no real surprise that John wished to have his spirit and his earthly remains left there. The complex of Chaco Canyon, an Anasazi Indian settlement 60 miles from Farmington, N.M., was, at its height near A.D. 1,000 the largest settlement in North America. The ancestral home for many of the Pueblo Indian tribes in the Rio Grande Valley and beyond, it has been called "America's Stonehenge." Contained here are thousands of rooms in the complex of 13 major ruins, which include precise astronomical alignments built into the mud and rock walls at the base of sandstone cliffs. The area is a national park and was also designated a World Heritage Site--a United Nations ranking that includes the Pyramids of Giza and Mexico's Chichén Itzá.

But what was meant to be a reverent end for someone's life is one of the numerous events at Chaco that is costing thousands to clean up, deeply offending the workers and in at least two cases resulting in ashes being retrieved and buried in an Albuquerque funeral area for the indigent and unknown. New Age abuses are digging up deep differences in the Native and Anglo communities at the 900-year-old kiva: Casa Rinconada, the best preserved kiva, long open for ceremonies and the nearly 90,000 annual visitors, was closed in October last year.

A report from a visitor allowed Family X to be traced. Their son's remains were vacuumed up with a generator and a Shop-Vac and returned to the stunned family. If the family was unfindable, however, the ashes would have been cleaned out of the park, turned over to the Office of the Medical Examiner and buried in Albuquerque with homeless people, unidentifiable victims and the poor. Three distinct sets of ashes collected in the pueblo in the past two years have made that trip.

"You can't really vacuum ashes up," says Dabney Ford, Chaco Canyon archaeologist. "You can't really clean it up. You can't really get the fragment of bone out of there. We suspect that those people depositing cremations in Chaco are doing it out of extreme respect for their loved ones. It's been going on for several years, with an increase in the past five years. ... It creates some serious problems."

Troubling the Navajos working at the park is the traditional tenet that disturbing human remains is an evil act. Because of their religious beliefs, they do not believe that they can enter the kiva to remove cremated remains. The sunken kivas were used by the culture occupying Chaco for religious ceremonies. Upsetting the tribes is the sacred sites' disrupted integrity--spiritual and actual--that occurs often when white, uninitiated people usurp and sully the ancient site with their remains. Signs posted at the site caution visitors not to leave items, but the ash deposits continue, and New Age ceremonies continue to create sacrilege, personnel problems, cost and headaches for the park.

"We have to clean the ashes out at night," says Ford. "We don't want visitors to see that. For the Native workers here, it's an evil act, but it's more than that. It's a troubling sacrilege. So much so that the tools that we use to clean up the mess have to be thrown away. If we put the remains in the vehicles, they don't feel good about that, either. We have to use our personal vehicles under cover of night. We throw things away."

According to Ford, the first recognized deposit occurred on the unprotected kiva floor, where ashes blew around for several hours before park personnel realized what it was. The cost for the cleanup: $6,000. Toothbrushes had to be used to pick the small grey pieces out of the dusty floor so as not to disturb the sacred kiva floor. Backfill dirt prevented the fine-tooth comb routine, but it hasn't stopped the ash-interring, which has cost the park more than $10,000 to clean up in the past few years. People have probably been doing it for years, says Ford.

Ash cleanups, according to archaeologist Philip Lopiccilo of the National Park Service, cost about $2,500 for each event. In addition to the illegal interrment of ashes are illegal incidents in one form or another that occur almost daily during the busy summer season. Other problems occur when visitors try to climb the fragile walls or dig into the walls to deposit personal effects or trash, speeding up the erosion of the centuries-old site.

But the ashes are the worst. Beyond dollar terms, Ford says, are the bad feelings that happen when ashes are found.

"You can't factor that in," says Ford. "We get sickened by it, sometimes literally. On one hand, our job is protecting the site, and on the other, we do it so the public can view this. Sometimes those are diametrically opposed. When you bring people into the integrity these sites hold, and multiple cultures collide, things like this happen."

"We were not involved in the decision to close Casa Rinconada," says Petuuche Gilbert, realty officer for the Pueblo of Acoma, a tribe that has ancestral lineage that includes Chaco Canyon and the wider Mesa Verde Anasazi cultures. "It prevents us from entering that door and praying there. The archaeological excavation of that site was desecration in the first place; they removed many of the cultural artifacts that were there (to begin with). We abhor that. These are the aboriginal homes of today's Pueblo Indian people. After that, we, like other people, started going into that kiva like the tourists and other groups. We went in there to say the prayers. We're prevented from doing that now."

The claim by Native Americans to the area is more than symbolic. Prayer ceremonies are still active at the site. According to Gilbert and a number of expert anthropologists and archaeologists studying Native Americans, the ruins have a spiritual essence for native people. With the fill dirt, the 64-foot diameter kiva, once known for its incredible acoustics, is changed. Bajada Butte, just south of the Canyon, has restricted access as well.

"Native Americans have to gain permission from the park superintendent in order to go up there and pray," says Gilbert. "It's a spiritual place, and it's like having a policeman at your church door. When non-Indians abuse the area, that's where it becomes disrespectful, and it desecrates that place. "It's now under Park Service control, but it still belongs to the Pueblo Indian people. "It's like their church. There's nothing wrong with non-Natives going in there and maybe praying. But how do you allow only Native American people without discriminating against other Americans?"

Increasing numbers of travelers have compromised other sites and parks in New Mexico as well. Park rangers at Bandelier National Monument southwest of Los Alamos have reported carving into the soft volcanic tuff cave ceilings. The site is also an Anasazi ancestral land, but it receives nearly 400,000 visitors each year. So many people go through the park in the summer that there is often a one-hour wait for parking, according to Chris Judson, park ranger at Bandelier since 1976.

"We have a particular dilemma," Judson says. "We have an area that is definitely a kiva, ceremonial place and school. People will go in there and carve their names, names of rock bands, whatever, into the stone. It's not going to grow back or fix itself. We've worked hard for 80 years at the park for people to see the park in its glory. We want future people to see this. But people think that rules don't apply to them. The park is in worse shape than it's ever been, and we are not in the position to take care of the problems. We have two or three times the number of people annually (than the number) we were designed for."

What park employees say is happening is not just a clash of cultures but a radical difference in values.

"What one person feels is a sacred thing, another will not," says Ford.

Analogies for Native culture and Anglo, Hispanic or historic cultures don't really work, according to Dabney Ford, who hopes that news of what actually happens to cleaned ashes will discourage others from their ill-planned attempt at reverence.

"You can make graphic comparisons, but there just aren't any correlations in our culture," Ford says. "Grandmother's living room comes close, and church, well, there just aren't any direct analogies. It's complex, and it's disturbing. When this happens, it's a lose-lose-lose situation. We'd like it to stop." ?

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