Bury My Olla in Anza-Borrego

“Who said you could come into this cemetery and write things down?”

Frank Salzar. The Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at Berkeley will return two funerary objects to Frank Salazar and the other members of the Kumeyaay association this year.
  • Frank Salzar. The Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at Berkeley will return two funerary objects to Frank Salazar and the other members of the Kumeyaay association this year.
  • Image by Joe Klein

The Campo Indian Reservation lies about 70 miles east of San Diego, beyond El Cajon and the Cleveland National Forest. The 16,000 acres are inhabited by roughly two-thirds of the 290 enrolled members of the Campo Band, and the land on either side of Church Road is hilly, shaded by oaks that the August thunderclouds have turned a blacker shade of green.

Kumeyaay Indian pottery. We drive east to Ocotillo and then west again on the Great Southern Overland Stage Route of 1849. We park at the Vallecito Stage Stop and check Salazar’s map.

Kumeyaay Indian pottery. We drive east to Ocotillo and then west again on the Great Southern Overland Stage Route of 1849. We park at the Vallecito Stage Stop and check Salazar’s map.

Frank Salazar, a Campo on his mother’s side and Apache-Mexican-Mayan on his father’s, has been working in the Campo tribal office since September. In shorts, a burgundy Campo T-shirt, black lace-up boots, and ponytail, Salazar, 27, looks as if he could move easily between Pacific Beach, where he spends his weekends, and the reservation, where he’s been repatriation director for a year. He will help decide what happens to the tribal artifacts that American museums and universities must by law return to the Campo, San Pasqual, and other tribes of the Kumeyaay Cultural Preservation Association.

This law is called the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act. When it was passed on November 16, 1990, Congress gave all universities and museums that receive federal funding five years to offer their “funerary objects,” “sacred objects,” and “objects of cultural patrimony” to the appropriate tribes. Though the law is the product of three years of discussion among curators, anthropologists, archeologists, and Native American groups, and is thus frequently called a “compromise,” it is also deemed a victory for Native Americans.

For museums and universities, however, the cost has been high. At the outset, museums estimated that repatriation would cost $40 million nationwide, money that had to come from budgets funded, in part, by state and federal governments. The Senate and House also allocated $2.3 million to fund repatriation efforts in 1994, and nearly that much in 1995 and 1996, but there are approximately 5000 institutions affected by the law, and they compete for the grant money with Native American groups like the Campo Band.

The Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at Berkeley, which is not a grant recipient, will return two funerary objects to Frank Salazar and the other members of the Kumeyaay association this year: a light-brown ceramic urn called an olla and a clay amulet decorated with a thunderbird. The urn and amulet are items #22,476 and #266,409 in a collection of more than one million North American artifacts. According to project coordinator Fritz Stern, the Hearst Museum hired a special staff of 18 people to comply with the law, and it will have spent $1 million on repatriation by the time its inventory is complete.

Until the Campo Band received a $67,800 repatriation grant, Frank Salazar was not a student of anthropology. He grew up in San Diego, surfed with his friends from Crawford High School, spent four years in the Army, and took classes from City, Mesa, and Grossmont Colleges before coming to live on the reservation. His experience with the outside world, he says, helped him get this position, which requires him to consult non-Indian anthropologists and curators and then make recommendations to the tribe.

Salazar has met with several anthropologists so far, and all of them, he says, have been helpful and sympathetic. But the Repatriation Act, besides being expensive, threatens some fundamental elements of North American anthropology, and even Lynn Goldstein, a University of Wisconsin anthropologist who helped initiate the legislation, acknowledges the scientific arguments against repatriation. “No matter what your position is— return everything or return nothing —” she says, “you can’t disagree with the fact that those things won’t be there to study anymore. Even if we record information — and many people are trying to record information before it’s returned — there are still all sorts of things we don’t know we should be recording, that we a may learn tomorrow are very important.”

As the deadline for repatriation approaches, Goldstein says, curators and scientists are struggling to comply with a law whose regulations have yet to be approved by Congress, which means that some rules may change. If they do change, even more time that was once devoted to scientific research, public programming, or education will be devoted to inventory and correspondence. “Even if it’s all volunteer help,” she says, “it has to be people who are familiar with things. Somebody has to supervise those people. And by having those people do that, something else is not getting done.”

Although UCLA Emeritus Professor Clement K. Meighan, a prominent critic of the act, argues that science has been sacrificed to political correctness, Tim McKeown, the national program leader for repatriation, argues otherwise. “This is a piece of civil rights legislation," he says, “in that it rectifies a long-standing wrong. Historically, if you look at the treatment of human remains in this country, if the human remains were of Anglo-Saxons, or of blacks, or of Hispanics, they generally were reburied when they were found. If they were of Native Americans, they generally wound up in museums. That’s unequal treatment, and the Constitution deals with issues of unequal treatment.”

Local anthropologist Florence Shipek believes the problem will not be completely rectified until the olla and the amulet are buried again. “You’ve brought the spirit back to the earth from the great Spirit World,” she explains. “It wants to be put back where it’s safe. And that means back in the ground.”

The olla and amulet need to be buried in or near the original site, so Salazar offers to ride with me and take a look. Museum records state that the light-brown olla was “collected on October 26, 1920, by Edward H. Davis from Vallecitos, San Diego County.” The cracked amulet was “found in a cremation in Vallecitos Valley.”

There is no “Vallecitos Valley”on my map, but a tiny blue line labeled Vallecito Creek winds in and out of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which is vast and steamy. We drive east to Ocotillo and then west again on the Great Southern Overland Stage Route of 1849, past ocotillos, faded yuccas, and clumps of yellow cactus. We park at the Vallecito Stage Stop and check Salazar’s map, which is more detailed, but we can only identify the Sawtooth Range, Laguna Mountain, Whale Peak, Devil’s Canyon, Indian Gorge. This is Salazar’s first visit to Vallecito, and he will have to consult Florence Shipek, the Bureau of Land Management, and other sources as repatriation nears.

When the reinterment occurs, it must be done with the proper ceremony, and those ceremonies aren’t widely practiced now. The major ceremony of remembrance, as described by the same Edward H. Davis who excavated the olla, lasted for several days each fall. In 1919, Davis wrote that “painted and ornamented male and female guests danced with images of the dead as hosts scattered gifts, historically of currency, cloth, and baskets, to non-relatives.” A photograph of these funeral images, resting like puppets at the feet of a Tipai medicine man, still exists. The photograph was taken at Campo in 1918 by Edward H. Davis himself.

The fact that the records of anthropologists like Davis and Shipek may help revive old traditions is the irony of repatriation. “Should we be going to a non-Indian to learn about our own culture?” Salazar asks. “Does that make any sense? No” But it’s a process made necessary by the fact, he says, that these artifacts have long been the property of outsiders, who could afford to buy or trade them. “The Kumeyaay have been impoverished for a couple hundred years now and are just slowly pulling themselves out of impoverishment. The things that they were used to — living on the land, gathering, or hunting — began to change as the non-Indian groups came in. So that culture kind of went away because those same things weren’t part of it any more.”

In addition to this, he says, the present-day elders were taught, “It’s bad to speak Indian, it’s bad to do this.” Salazar’s own mother was taken off the reservation and put in a foster home, and similar incidents in the ’40s and ’50s produced what he calls Ma gap on the reservation.” By this he means that a whole generation of people who could have been teachers are “either gone or they still feel it’s bad to talk about it, that you need to speak English, you need to go to this church, you need to get rid of the old ways.”

When we return to the tribal office, which sits on a hill above a 19th-century church and cemetery, I say I’d like to look at the cemetery before I go. “Sure," he says, “the names are interesting.” Then he drives away.

The gate to the cemetery hangs ajar. A row of young pepper trees divides the cemetery in half, and a few rusty folding chairs sit beside the newer graves. The new markers and the turquoise crosses are surrounded by silk flowers, empty vases, and mason jars with fine residue in the bottom. On the peeling concrete arms of the crosses, someone has coiled wires and attached handmade tissue flowers, which have nearly disintegrated.

“Who are you?” a woman shouts from a van that has just pulled up to the gate. She is young, in her 20s, and she has a bracelet of tattoos around her wrist. I say my name, and I say I’ve been talking to Frank Salazar this afternoon about the grave protection act, which suddenly seems like the wrong reason to be standing inside Our Lady of St. Carmel Cemetery. “Who said you could come into this cemetery and write things down?” she asks. “That’s our cemetery. You can’t just come in there and write things.”

I explain about Frank Salazar and his position in the office up the hill. I say he gave me permission, but she says, “He can’t tell you that. You have to go through the whole tribal members.” She demands that I give her the paper I’ve been writing on. When I explain that there are things on the back of the page that I need, she is dubious, but in the end, she relents. A child stares at me from the back of the van, where he is swinging slowly back and forth.

“You have to get out of there,” the woman says.

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