Saturday, April 30, 2011

When Laws and State Historic Preservation Divisions Fail to Serve and Protect

As you read, I invite you to listen to Izrael Kamakawiwo'ole's moving song, "Hawai'i 78"

Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) Scholars Against Desecration: The Case of Naue

As the final speaker in the Ontologies of Exhumation lecture series, Native Hawaiian activist and scholar Dr. J. Kehualani Kauani, associate professor of American Studies and Anthropology at Wesleyan University, came to Columbia on April 21, 2011 for a session on Native Hawaiian indigenous politics surrounding the adverse effects of Hawaiian burial ground desecration in the form of architectural construction.

We examined the case of Naue, a beachfront along the northern shore of Kaua'i where real estate developer Joseph Brescia disturbed the grave of at least 30 known iwi kupuna (Hawaiian ancestral remains) - churned the ground with backhoes, crushing and mixing ancestral bones with sand and concrete - to build the foundation of a multimillion dollar home. The controversy lies within the suspicious nature in which Joseph Brescia obtained a permit to move forward with construction from the State Historic Preservation Division (SHPD) without the required consultation with the Kaua'i-Ni'ihau Island Burial Council.

Despite years of protests which began in 2007, Native Hawaiian protesters and activists were denied of their requests for a halt or temporary injunction to stop construction until a Burial Treatment Plan was approved (which wasn't until the 16th draft in March of 2010). Part of the issue was a lack of genealogical experts within the SHPD to trace familial lineages which were required by NAGRPA law in order to halt construction.

Our discussion with Dr. Kauanui brought to light several different kinds of issues which tie together many of the themes we covered throughout the semester - legal narratives, exhumation and ethics, agency of the dead, emotion, humanitarian narratives, counting the dead and representing the dead.

The case of Naue is a prime example of laws and "humanitarian" preservation organizations that fail to serve, protect and preserve the rights of indigenous groups on account of political corruption and legal ambiguity. NAGPRA, as originally drafted, pertained to "legally recognized" (a controversial issue in and of itself) Native Americans in mainland U.S.A., and tangentially, but inadequately, attempts to serve the needs of Native Hawaiians. As Dr. Kauanui discussed, there is an important difference between common descent and island identity. If mortuary practices are culturally bound, why do these laws operate as a function of biology/DNA/genetics? And what is to be done with corrupt archaeologists like Mike Dega, who Brescia hired and wrote the initial Burial Treatment Plan; or with SHPD officials like, Nancy McMahon, who approved Dega's BTP without consulting the Burial Council? Who's interests do they really serve? Who will the Kanaka Maoli and Iwi Kupuna turn to if the very organizations and stewards of cultural heritage do the exact opposite of what they were established to do?

The desecration of the Naue graves also invites us to think about the agency of the dead and how it is constantly undermined by secular hegemony that dictates who counts as human and whether or not the dead have rights. For Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) and general Kanaka (no direct lineage), human bones are very much alive and are believed to protect living descendants who in turn have a kuleana (responsibility) to respect and care for their ancestors and ancestral places of rest. Dr. Kauanui expressed the complexity of issues surrounding grave desecration which include arrests, negligence, a lack of interest from younger generations, and even an incident of suicide triggered by legal bouts. Carrying out their kuleana (responsibility to care for the dead) is also particularly difficult when jobs are on the line and when law enforcement use intimidation tactics against emotionally distraught locals.

Dr. Kauanui also recognizes the fact that these issues resonate not only with Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) but to the wider community, to the individual that simultaneously deals with being Hawaiian, a Christian, an archaeologist, and perhaps a construction worker or a law enforcer. As these issues are not black and white, we should all be prompted to think and act accordingly.

To hear more about indigenous politics, tune into Dr. Kauanui's public affairs radio program, "Indigenous Politics: From Native New England and Beyond" which airs on the 1st, 3rd, and 5th Tuesday of each month from 4-5pm EST on WESU, Middletown, CT. Past episodes are also archived at Of particular interest might be "Desecration at Kawai'hao Church" from March 11, 2011.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Theoretical Archaeology Group at Berkeley May 6-8th

Just a heads up on the next TAG meeting - it'll be at UC Berkeley over the weekend of the 6-8th May. The theme is 'Archaeology of and in the Contemporary World', a favorite topic of our bloggers here at Trace|work, who'll be out in force: - Check out the 'strata/palimpsest' poster session and 'Apocalyptic Imaginations: Disaster, Ruination, and Resilience'

There are many, many wonderful looking sessions over the course of the weekend - the difficulty will be choosing which ones to go to - Hope to see you there!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Que queremos? Justicia y Verdad! (What do we want? Justice and Truth!)

"It's said that the bones of the dead tell no lies. In many cases, they speak on their own behalf, telling stories of pain, violence and abuse...they speak of the crimes against humanity, of the genocide committed by the Army against the indigenous population." - Rigoberta Menchu Tum on clandestine burials from Guatemala genocide, 1992.

Photo by Jonathan Moller, 2000, Nebaj, Quiche, Guatemala, "Praying at the gravesite of a man killed and buried by guerillas in 1983."*

On April 7, 2011, following the "New Pathways to Justice Conference: An International Conference to Stop Violence Against Women in Central America" at Lehman College, was the opening of a traveling photo exhibit at the Leonard Lief Library titled, "Refugees Even After Death: A Quest for Truth, Justice and Reconciliation." The photographs were taken by Jonathan Moller, between May 2000 and July 2001, as a staff photographer for the Forensic Anthropology team of the Office of Peace and Reconciliation of the Quiche Catholic Diocese in Guatemala. The images are connected to the ongoing forensic exhumations of clandestine burials, representing a small fraction of the 40,000 disappeared, that resulted from over 36 years of civil war between local rebels and the Guatemalan government.

Unlike other cases of archaeological exhumations of human remains, the indigenous people of Quiche, Guatemala - survivors of the Guatemalan Army acts of genocide - were in support of forensic archaeological work and sought to recover the remains of their loved ones for three primary reasons: for proper reburial, for collective proof of the horrendous acts adamantly denied by the Guatemalan government/army officials, and to charge those responsible for the injustice. But as mere words cannot adequately justify the impact of the horror surrounding genocide, Moller's traveling photographs resituate the intensity of emotion, the suffering of the victims, and the survivors' senses of loss, unity, desperation for justice, and even their sense of hope behind the fatigue of 15 years of hiding.

Moller's twenty or so photographs on display strongly demonstrate the power of images and their ability to evoke both conflicting and concordant emotions from viewers, which in a way reflects the very nature of the photographs' subject matter. How is it that I was drawn to the rich colors, beautiful landscape, and the captured feelings emanating from the people in the photographs and yet fearful of looking too closely at each portrayal of sadness, loss and despair?

The universal contortion of the face and downward turn of the mouth expressing grief on the survivor's faces found me fighting back tears and failing twice. I couldn't help but replace the faces and bones of the Quiche victims with those of whom I have lost or fear losing in today's heightened belligerent state. What do you do when the army shoots down your family and denies that it even happened? How do you cope with hiding until the Peace Accord was signed some 15 years later while knowing your likely deceased loved one may be lying in a ditch like road kill or eaten by wild animals?

How do you react when you realize that the skeleton unearthed before you is wearing your father's favorite trousers?

As the exhibit panels indicate, the families and forensic archaeologists involved continue to risk their lives as they, Guatemalan human rights organizations, other international human rights organizations, foreign governments and the Catholic Church wish to push forward with these exhumations, even in the face of resistance from some military sectors and the 90% of crimes that go unpunished.

So, what can we think about here? As a student of archaeology, exhumations like the ones in Quiche, Guatemala feel right when they are favorable in the eyes of the victims and survivors of wartime tragedies and when local indigenous groups are closely involved. Their involvement represences a level of reverence of which we may be too ignorant to realize and therefore unable to carry out. These bones live, tell stories, seek justice, bear our grief and are, for some, harbingers of hope.

* All photographs are taken from the "Refugees Even After Death: A Quest for Truth, Justice and Reconciliation" Exhibit at the Leonard Lief Library of Lehman College, 250 Bedford Park West, Bronx, New York.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Inhabiting The Unfinished Past: Isaias Rojas- Perez Speaks At Columbia

            Isaias Rojas-Perez, recent graduate of John Hopkins University and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University in Newark came to Columbia University on April 14 as our third speaker in the Ontologies of Exhumation lecture series.  His lecture, titled “Inhabiting Unfinished Pasts: Law, Transitional Justice, and Mourning in Post War Peru,” considered how survivors and relatives of victims of state terror engage in state-sponsored legal projects aiming to put an end to legacies of violence, impunity, and forgetfulness in cases of gross human rights violations that took place during the counterinsurgency campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s.  
            In August of 2003, after two years of work, the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) submitted its final report to then President Alejandro Toledo.  The Peruvian TRC concluded that over 69,000 people died in twenty years of internal war between the Peruvian security forces and the guerrilla groups Shining Path and MRTA.  Rojas-Perez described the experience of violence and terror in the Peruvian Andes as “an attack against cultural practices and what it means to be human beings.”
            In his talk, Rojas-Perez focused specifically on how mothers of the desaparecidos [missing persons] engage the forensic excavation of clandestine mass graves in Los Cabitos, a military base in Ayacucho, Peru that served as a headquarters of the state sponsored counterinsurgency campaign.  According to testimonial evidence, Los Cabitos was a major center of torture and extrajudicial execution of suspects of terrorism.   The forensic excavation provided hard evidence to confirm those allegations and questioned longstanding official denial of the detention, disappearance and extrajudicial execution of accused terrorists at the site.  After almost five years of work, the team of forensic archaeologists of the Peruvian Legal Medicine Institute exhumed around 100 complete bodies—including a number of children. The remains contained evidence of torture, blindfolding, and the binding of hands. There is also evidence supporting that the victims were forced to dig their own graves. In order to mask these abuses and thwart potential future forensic work, the perpetrators sprinkled the bodies with lime salt to expedite the decomposition of the flesh. There was also evidence of the existence of furnaces in which the military allegedly burned the bodies of their victims, using Nazi-like technologies of disposal of bodies.  However, the forensic work was less successful in identifying and individualizing the victims. Thus, the bodies could not be returned to their relatives for proper burial.   
             The relatives of desaparecidos attending the exhumations were witnesses to these “landscapes of devastation” In his talk, Rojas-Perez discussed how the relatives of the desaparecidos appropriated the outcomes of the excavations to reclaim the past and assert truth against official denial. For seeking their missing sons, these mothers were defamed- labeled as drunks, madwomen, even terrorists themselves. The truth uncovered during the forensic excavations confirmed their allegations and allowed them to indict official denial.
However, because the bodies of the desaparecidos could not be individually identified, their families were never given the opportunity to mourn the remains, making complete closure impossible.  Rojas-Perez spoke of how with no identifiable bodies to mourn, uncertainty continues. These wandering souls form communities of the dead- maintaining agency even without a physical body- haunting the living through dreams, offering some reassurance, some peace, some articulation that they once lived. The wandering of the ghosts mirrors the wandering of their living relatives- displaced, searching for a body.
            The Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Committee has made great strides in aiding the prosecution of the perpetrators of state violence and the breaking of public silence about the fate of the disappeared, but the past is still “unfinished”- and the wandering living and dead will continue to inhabit Peru. Current President Garcia, who himself is still under investigation for human rights abuses committed during his first tenure (1985-1990),  is still in power and has attempted to grant immunity to perpetrators of gross human rights violations.  However, stories such as those of the desaparecidos make such attempts not only illegal, but immoral.  Thus, it can be said that that the violence of the past is a matter of an ongoing struggle, rather than reconciliation.