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Kearns: Federal grave robbing of Taino remains

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and its associates took ancient indigenous remains and artifacts from a newly discovered site in Puerto Rico in late October and flew them to a lab in Atlanta, Ga., for tests. There are laws in Puerto Rico prohibiting anyone from removing these kinds of materials from the island, and there are Taino people, real live human beings, who are furious over this latest episode of federal body snatching.

Probably in response to the public complaints of Puerto Rican scholars and archaeologists, the feds have promised to return everything that they have stolen, although we have to take their word for what has recently appeared as the list of items that will be returned.

As Yogi Berra once said, ''This is deja vu all over again.''

For Puerto Ricans of all kinds, especially for those of us with Taino roots - and that means most Puerto Ricans - we've heard this line before and we have no reason to believe them. On top of everything else, there is a sad echo effect at play here: It's the racist way in which the United States treats Puerto Rico and the way some officials treat Tainos or even the idea of Tainos that creates a sickening echo, one that keeps ringing in our ears and should be telling us something.

That something is to gain sovereignty for the island. It's the only way we can protect our heritage, our people and even the remains of our ancestors, as our Native cousins in North America have learned over and over again.

The series of events that lead to this latest outrage played out fairly quickly. Within the last few months, the Corps started clearing a section of southern Puerto Rico for the construction of a dam, for the purpose of preventing flooding that is all too common in that region. At some point the Corps hired New South Associates, an archaeological and historical consulting firm, to handle any potential discoveries. It has been widely known that the area north of the city of Ponce was home to some major Taino ceremonial sites; the centers at Tibes and Caguana are good examples of these highly developed community areas.

Near the end of October, a major Taino site was unearthed during the construction process. Archaeologists from both the United States and Puerto Rico are hailing it as being the best-preserved pre-Columbian site in the Caribbean, with the potential to reveal many aspects of Taino and pre-Taino life in the area, from eating habits to spiritual ceremonies. The newly discovered site has a ritual ball field (known as a batey) that measures 130 feet by 160 feet, surrounded by giant stones etched with petroglyphs, one of which portrays a masculine human figure with legs of a frog. Along with the plaza, many ceramic pieces were unearthed as well as graves of ancient peoples, some of whom were buried facedown with their legs bent at the knees.

Experts are already estimating that the site includes materials dating back as far as 600 A.D. with other items from approximately 1,500 A.D., a few years after the invaders arrived.

These facts are the only points of agreement. Otherwise, the tableau turns into a crime scene.

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According to members of the General Council of Borinquen Tainos, leading Puerto Rican archaeologists and scholars from the island's Institute of Culture, the Corps and New South destroyed untold amounts of artifacts and human remains with bulldozers and backhoes. Puerto Rican archaeologists and local Taino leaders then protested these procedures, eventually embarrassing the federal grave robbers enough so that they had to halt the excavation. Sadly, the official chicanery did not stop there.

Even as the protesters were pointing out that the feds were destroying artifacts and human remains with their reckless excavations and that, according to the commonwealth's Law of Archaeological Patrimony, all unearthed materials must be inspected by the local archaeological council, the Corps and New South had already started sending some items to a lab in Atlanta.

Then, the Tainos pointed out, correctly, that the island's government had ignored them when they were trying to alert them to a similar theft of artifacts and remains that had been taken from Arecibo, an ancient Taino town to the north (it is famous in modern times for being the home of the world's largest radio dish observatory). These materials and ancient bones ended up in the University of Florida at Gainesville.

These are the same officials who are now telling us they will return all of the purloined items as soon as the tests are completed. Their recent record is not too good.

Even though the Corps is a separate branch of service from the U.S. Navy, many Puerto Ricans remember Navy officials telling them that no, they were not using depleted uranium or napalm in tests on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. To put it plainly, they lied; and then after they were caught, they tried to say they dropped these highly toxic, easily dispersible poisons in a ''safe'' manner. Then, as international attention grew more intense and stories of school buses being accidentally strafed emerged, the tide changed, sort of. A few years later, in 2005, close to 100 FBI and other police surrounded the home of a 72-year-old fugitive hiding out in the center of the island, staged a massive firefight in the middle of a residential neighborhood, riddled the house with more than 200 bullets and allowed the fugitive to bleed to death after medical personnel were prevented from attending to Filiberto Ojeda Rios in his final hours.

So when a U.S. official in military garb tells us something, many of us flinch. But we didn't forget Vieques, we haven't forgotten Filiberto, and we will not forget that someone has taken our ancestors' bones to some lab somewhere to do God-knows-what.

Here's hoping that honest people have some role in returning what should have never been taken in the first place and the racist echo is stopped. A person can hope.

Rick Kearns is a freelance writer, poet and teacher of Boricua heritage who focuses on indigenous issues in Latin America.