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The bodies in the cave

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The body was purchased by Bob Howard, the grandson of Seabiscuit owner Charles Howard. (Howard could not be reached for comment.) In 1999, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received a tip that Howard, an avid collector of exotic taxidermy, possessed endangered species and had raided him in Palm Springs. In California, unlike Texas, it is illegal to possess Native remains. When law enforcement officers saw the body, they called the coroner, who eventually arranged for it to be sent to TARL.

Xoxi Nayapiltzin knew her family had lived in the area for a long time.Photograph by Jessica Lutz

The Novaks led us to the garage, where most of Ken’s collection was stored. I had heard Schroeder rant about this before. “There are about 60 known atlatls in North America,” he had said during the car ride, “and there are three of them lying around the house. Sure enough, the wall above the Corvette was adorned with a dozen framed arrangements of arrowheads and other artifacts. Schroeder asked if he could take one of the framed sets back to Alpine for a few days – he wanted to x-ray an atlatl forebody and consult a botanist about plant material from an unusual bracelet. Ken seemed to agree, but Betty objected. When Ken finally called it off, she pulled out her phone and photographed Schroeder removing the framed set from the wall — proof in case he didn’t return it, she said, half-jokingly.

The Novaks were horrified that Benke had sold the remains Ken had removed from the cave. “It’s a body,” Betty said. “You don’t do stuff like that.” But in the United States, there is a long tradition of individuals and institutions possessing the bodies of Indigenous peoples, which have been used to substantiate eugenic claims, analyzed to understand North American prehistory, and exposed as curiosities.

From the 1960s, activists of the American Indian Movement organized sit-ins in museums and interrupted archaeological excavations. They argued that the indigenous remains were not objects of study belonging to scientists but ancestors whose fate should be controlled by their descendants. In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which allowed tribes to claim skeletal remains and sacred objects, as long as they could prove a “reasonable connection”. But nagpra applies only to institutions that receive federal funds. In Texas, individuals can legally possess (but not sell) human remains. “It’s a pretty common problem, actually,” Tanya Marsh, a professor at Wake Forest School of Law and an expert in funeral and cemetery law, told me. “There are very few rules that apply to human remains that are in private hands, and virtually no rules that require an investigation into the events that led to those remains being in private hands.”

On the way back to Alpine, Schroeder told me that at least two more bodies had been pulled from Spirit Eye. One of them, a baby swaddled in deer skin, had been removed from the cave in the early fifties. For years, local residents told Schroeder that she had been on display at a car dealership in Marfa. The owner, now an elderly man still living in Marfa, refused to speak to Schroeder. “He’s well known in the area, and he doesn’t think he needs that kind of attention,” Schroeder said.

Schroeder traced the other body – that of a grown man, who had been removed from the cave in the early sixties – to a local history museum in Pecos, Texas oil country. The director of the museum is a woman named Dorinda Millan. Arranging to see the body took “months of unanswered calls, hours of driving, multiple visits, diverted conversations, multiple missed correspondences and a detailed follow-up letter explaining the reason for the persistence,” wrote Schroeder, in an article published in Advances in Archaeological Practice.

Schroeder met Millan and, after an hour of chatter, asked him if he could see the remains. She reluctantly removed a sepia photograph from a wall, revealing a hidden latch. When the wall opened, he saw the body, crouched in what looked like a papier-mâché cave with fake pictographs on the walls and perishable artifacts – baskets, corn – strewn at his feet. “She said, ‘Here you go,’ and walked down the hall,” Schroeder told me. “And my jaw hit the ground. I was just looking—like, What‘ Millan agreed to let him take a small sample from the body for DNA testing, and Schroeder knocked out a tooth.

When I arrived at Millan later, she told me that the body had been donated to the museum by “one of our old pioneer families” decades earlier. “It’s a sensitive subject for us. We feel connected to her, because we have been her guardian for all these decades,” she told me. (Millan thought the body was female; recent DNA testing confirmed it was male.) “We want to keep it private. We don’t want to talk about it. Our board is very protective of her, and so am I.

When Xoxi Nayapiltzin attended elementary school at Alpine in the 1950s, he recalls, he studied a lot of Texas history, but nothing about the area’s Native past. “History begins with the first European explorer,” he told me wryly. Both times I met him, Nayapiltzin, a reserved seventy-seven-year-old with silver hair, wore a denim shirt tucked into denim pants. He didn’t grow up thinking of himself as Native American, a term he associated with reservations and federally recognized tribes, but he knew his family had long lived in the Big Bend area. Much of the family tradition had been passed down through her grandmother’s great-grandmother, Sebastiana Carrasco. A local ravine has been named Arroyo Sebastiana, commemorating the time his chariot overturned there, more than a century before.

As a teenager, Nayapiltzin moved to El Paso, where he now runs a small real estate business, but often returned to Alpine. As he got older, he became fascinated with finding his local roots. He visited the Family History Center, run by the Mormon Church; at the Sul Ross Library, which had parish records dating back to the end of the colonial era, he spent hours deciphering century-old script. He even had his DNA sequenced, a controversial practice among some Native Americans, in part because it fails to capture the complex web of relationships that determine tribal affiliation.

Today, Texas has three federally recognized tribes—the Alabama-Coushatta, Tigua, and Kickapoo—totaling less than seven thousand enrolled members. There are also a handful of state-recognized tribes, including the Lipan Apache and the Miakan-Garza Band. “Usually when people talk about ‘Native American’ or ‘Indian’ tribes, they’re pretty much referring to the federally recognized tribes,” Mario Garza, cultural preservation manager for the Miakan-Garza Band, told me. . “A lot of people don’t believe you’re Indian unless the white government says you’re Indian.”

In response to the hostility, many Native Americans in Texas chose to identify as Mexican Americans. More recently, that has started to change. In 1970, eighteen thousand Texans identified as American Indians on census forms; by 2020, their number had risen to almost three hundred thousand.

After Schroeder returned from Pecos, he sent the tooth he had extracted, along with a sample of the body Novak removed, to the Molecular Anthropology Laboratory at the University of Montana. Laboratory tests revealed that both bodies were linked to the mother; one was about seven hundred years old and the other about nine hundred years old.

On the day Schroeder got the results, Nayapiltzin happened to be visiting the Center for Big Bend Studies, discussing the petroglyphs with one of Schroeder’s colleagues. When Schroeder told her about the DNA test, Nayapiltzin talked about her haplotype, a group of genetic mutations used to trace the maternal line: B2a4a1. It was the same as the bodies in the cave, which meant that Nayapiltzin was related. Schroeder was stunned; Nayapiltzin was not. “I just thought it was confirmation of what I already knew,” he told me. “It doesn’t surprise me that my ancestors are here.”

When people seek to recover bone remains, priority is given, under NAGPRA, to federally recognized tribes. This has sometimes been a source of intergroup conflict. (The Miakan-Garza Band is currently petitioning TARL for three sets of remains, but his claim was blocked by two federally recognized tribes.) Chip Colwell, who worked at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, told me that when nagpra past, “there were a lot of doomsday predictions about the future of museums and archaeology.” But two decades later, there were still over a hundred thousand Native American skeletal remains in museum collections. This is partly because institutions were unable to determine a tribal affiliation for many remains. After hundreds of years, it can be difficult to prove a connection to a current tribe.

“I brought chips and cookies to snack on and baby carrots to sit unopened on the blanket.”

Cartoon by Asher Perlman

When Schroeder prepared to publish his work, other anthropologists questioned his actions, especially the extraction of the tooth. Destructive analysis, or testing that requires the removal or destruction of body parts, is a controversial practice. Colwell told me that in more than ten years at the Denver museum, he had been involved in dozens of consultations with tribes about unaffiliated remains. DNA testing was often mentioned as an option. “It was raised as a question – would it benefit the cultural affiliation process?” he said. “Nobody ever wanted to do that.” Colwell believes that destructive analysis should only take place with the consent of potential descendants: “Even trying to do something good, you could harm your ancestors or your descendants by making such decisions.”

Schroeder bristled at the thought that he had made a misstep. “I don’t own that thing,” he said. “I submitted my research project to TARLand TARL could have said to me “No, you can’t do it”, but they told me that I could do it. So I didn’t do anything wrong. » (TARL has since imposed a temporary moratorium on destructive analysis.) He began to speak more rapidly, as if expressing an argument he’d had in his head many times: “Did I do everything right ? I don’t even know if there is a right way to do everything. Everyone was like, ‘Do you still want to taste the stuff in the cupboard?’ Most likely!”

Nayapiltzin was equivocal about the methods that linked him to his ancestors in Spirit Eye. He told me he didn’t want to discuss DNA testing. “Let Bryon talk about it,” he said. He had petitioned TARL to take over the body that Novak discovered, which he planned to rebury, but the process was underway. Because the DNA test had established Nayapiltzin as a possible descendant, his claim was strong, but he was still nervous. “I don’t want to say too much until we have it,” he told me.