The Crestone Eagle, May 2005:

Remains of Native American woman found in the Baca
by Maggie Mesinger, Sage House

On Friday, April 8, while excavating in the road easement on Badger Road in the Baca Grande Grants near Crestone, Ken Skoglund unearthed the human remains of a Native American woman whose tribal affiliation is yet undetermined. With the skeletal bones were two manos and one metate and an animal bone tool found loose in the dirt. Manos and metates are grinding stones used to process plants and other materials.

The metate is a large stone slab on which items to be ground are placed. The mano is a smaller stone that is held in the hand(s) and moved back and forth over the surface of the metate. There has been no association made between the human remains and the grave goods, but the presence of the mano and metate do reveal something about the food processing practices of a number of tribes.

The woman was estimated to be older than 30 years at the time of her death. State Archaeologist Susan Collins indicates that the bones are estimated to be between 300 and 400 years old, though a full study has not been conducted. Cultural affiliation studies will be completed within one year. At that time, if a preponderance of evidence suggests a tribal affiliation, the tribe with the preponderance of evidence can claim the remains. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) governs this process. The National Park Service posts culturally unidentifiable remains on their website. Tribes can make claims on remains via a formal letter from the tribal government.

Colorado Revised Statute 24-80-1302 regulates what must happen when human remains are discovered. In part, the statute says, “any person who discovers on any land suspected human skeletal remains or who knowingly disturbs such remains shall immediately notify the coroner of the county wherein the remains are located and the sheriff, police chief, or land managing agency official.” In this case, Ken Skoglund notified the Saguache County sheriff of his discovery. The sheriff notified the County Coroner.

The statute goes on to say, “The coroner shall conduct an on-site inquiry within forty-eight hours of such notification to attempt to determine whether such skeletal remains are human remains, and to determine their forensic value…If it is confirmed that the remains are human remains but of no forensic value, the coroner shall notify the state archaeologist of the discovery. The state archaeologist shall recommend security measures for the site.”

At this point in the process, Kevin Black, Assistant State Archaeologist, opened a discussion with Lieutenant Governor Jane Norton, and Ernest House, Jr., Ute Mountain tribal member and Executive Secretary of the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs. A decision was made to send Colorado Historical Society staff members Kevin Black and Thomas Carr to the site, along with Ernest House, Jr. The three worked with very small hand tools in the trench and through the sand at the bottom and sides of the trench. They also examined the pile of dirt Skoglund had removed from the trench.

Additional skeletal bones were removed from the dirt pile, and a piece of an animal bone tool was found loose in the dirt. These finds, along with the skeletal pieces collected earlier, were transported to Denver to be examined by a physical anthropologist. The men found no evidence that additional graves exist near this site, nor did they feel that additional artifacts were likely. As a result, the site has been backfilled.

When I visited the site where the remains were discovered, I noted how shallow the grave seemed to be. Kevin Black confirmed that the grave was 52” deep, and that it was in a sand sheet atop a gravel layer. Sand sheets shift, much like the dune fields at the Sand Dunes, but not as profoundly. According to Black, it is likely that the grave went only as deep as the gravel layer because it would have been difficult to dig deeper into gravel.

If this story seems like a dispassionate reporting of facts, it is. Up to this point.

Thank you to everyone who had a part in this story. From Ken Skoglund, who did all the right things, to Sheriff’s Deputy Richard Sutton, who acted his role with great respect and sensitivity, to the state archaeologists, who bring reverence to their work, to everyone who allowed a process to unfold as it needed to.

On my visit to the site, I was struck hard by the sense that there are some things an archaeologist cannot reconstruct. Those things are personal, delicate, sacred. A story gets told 300 years or more after the person who lives it draws her last breath. A culture of people live, struggle, share meals and bury their dead. Out of the earth comes the voice of an unintentional author who has a memorable story to tell, a story that echoes off mountains and sky and earth and us. The Lakota say, “Mitakuye oyasin maka sitomni, hecitu welo!”—We are related to everything in the world, it is indeed so!” I know I am humbled and made better by the spirit of this woman who lived, as we do, in a place that nurtures the stories we have come to tell.

As we tell those stories, let’s remember that we are not the original people. But like them, we can know what it is to love the land, and to treat it with visible prayer. Through the ceremony of our own interactions, we can tell a story that years from now will echo off mountains and sky and earth and those who have yet to arrive. I will hold that prayer.