PRESCOTT, Ariz. (CN) — The Navajo Nation claims the National Park Service sacked more than 300 sets of human remains and cultural artifacts from Canyon de Chelly National Monument, in violation of an 1868 treaty and the U.S. Constitution.
The Navajo, who refer to themselves as Diné, meaning "people," sued the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, the two agencies' top officials and Canyon de Chelly National Monument Park Superintendent Tom Clark, in Federal Court.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument is on the Arizona portion of the vast Navajo Reservation. Famous for its dramatic rock formations and ruins of ancient cliff dwellings, the monument is one the of reservation's top tourist attractions, and has been featured in countless cowboy movies.
According to defendant Clark, the canyon has been inhabited and considered a spiritual landscape by the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and other tribes going back some 4,000 years. About 40 Navajo families still farm and raise livestock in the canyon.
The Navajo, the country's largest tribe, gained title to Canyon de Chelly and its tributary Canyon del Muerto through the Treaty of 1868, which ended years of fighting between the tribe and federal troops and established the borders of the reservation. The tribe agreed to allow the federal government to establish the monument in 1930.
But attorneys with the Navajo Nation Department of Justice's Natural Resources Unit say that the tribe would never have consented to that deal if it had known the National Park Service planned to take human remains from the canyons, which they say "constitute the very heart of the Navajo homeland (Dinébikeyah), which is bounded by the four sacred mountains of the Navajo People."
"Since the establishment of the National Monument, without seeking or obtaining consent or permission of the Navajo Nation government, and contrary to Diné spiritual, religious and cultural practice, NPS has dug up and carried off human remains, and cultural objects, from Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto, and put them in its 'collection,'" the complaint states.
"In the Navajo world view, exhuming human remains causes illness to human beings, including depression, arthritis, and family and intertribal disharmony, damages crops, natural ecosystems and the environment, and disrupts local and global weather patterns.
"By agreeing to the establishment of the Canyon de Chelly National Monument, the Navajo Nation Council would never have agreed, and did not agree, that the National Park Service, or any other party, was thereby allowed to exhume and carry off human remains and sacred and other cultural objects located on or in the monument."
The service is holding 303 sets of human remains and various cultural artifacts from Canyon de Chelly at the Western Archeology Conservation Center in Tucson. The tribe has been trying to get the items back since at least the late 1990s, according to the complaint.
Most recently, the tribe sent a letter to Superintendent Clark in August, demanding that the Park Service halt a process of repatriation under way through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Tribal attorneys demanded that the service "immediately make arrangements to return the remains and cultural objects to the Navajo Nation."
Clark told Courthouse News on Tuesday that the Park Service cannot do that because the agency is bound by NAGPRA to work with all of the tribes involved, not just the one that owns the land.
"The tribe considers that it comes under property rights law," Clark said. "But we have to follow NAGPRA."
That means meeting with each tribe that may have claim to the human remains and artifacts to discuss "how they want to re-inter and repatriate the items," Clark said.
"Everyone has a say," he added.
Clark said that the service began the NAGPRA process for the Canyon de Chelly items last year by showing them - some of which were removed from the canyon in the 1930s or earlier - to several regional tribes, including the Navajos.
He said he was not surprised by the lawsuit because the Navajo Nation has been arguing the property-rights issue for years.
"We have a good relationship with them and we all work together," Clark said. "There's just this one issue."
The Diné insist that the "ultimate disposition of human remains and cultural objects taken from tribal lands prior to the enactment of NAGPRA [in 1990] is subject to the consent of the Indian or Indian tribe which owns or has jurisdiction over such lands."
"NPS intends to culturally affiliate and repatriate the 303 remains and objects to either the Hopi, Zuni, or Navajo tribes, or potentially some other tribe, even where all of the remains and objects were removed from the original treaty lands of the Navajo Nation and are the property of the Navajo Nation," the complaint states.
The tribe says that if a court determines that either the 1930 law establishing the monument or NAGPRA had transferred title to the archaeological resources in the Canyon de Chelly National Monument to the federal government, then both laws would be in violation of the 5th Amendment's takings clause.
The Navajo Nation seeks a permanent injunction prohibiting the defendants from "carrying out any further inventory, cultural affiliation, or disposition processes pursuant to NAGPRA for human remains and cultural objects, or any other archaeological resources ... within the Canyon de Chelly National Monument."
The tribe also seeks declaratory judgment that the trove of remains and artifacts belongs to the Navajo Nation, and a "mandatory injunction that NPS immediately arrange for, and cooperate in, the orderly repatriation of any and all human remains and cultural objects, and any other archaeological resources ... which were removed from Canyon de Chelly National Monument."
The tribe is represented by William Kelly with the Navajo Nation Department of Justice's Natural Resources Unit, in Window Rock.