JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
How do you lose a cemetery?
According to Ignacio School District 11-JT and the La Plata County coroner, the answer is, “We don’t know yet.”
Construction workers in March uncovered four human bodies buried on school grounds in the course of building a new elementary school for the Ignacio School District.
Three months later, the district has uncovered 26 bodies around the site.
While authorities initially suspected the bodies were of Spanish origin and buried about 50 to 75 years ago, Jann Smith, La Plata County coroner, said it now appears the cemetery is multi-ethnic and dates to 100 years ago. She said some of the bodies were determined to be Native American.
Though the bodies have been taken to Fort Lewis College for further study, very little is known about the dead, and everyone from professors at FLC to Ignacio School District officials has been publicly keeping mum about the origin of the bodies, perhaps out of respect for Native American views of death and wariness of the might of the Southern Ute Tribe.
Ignacio proudly calls itself a “tri-ethnic” community, home to three thriving cultures: Hispanic, Anglo and Native American.
But while belief in education is a value common to all Ignacio’s cultures – Ignacio residents voted to issue a nearly $50 million bond for schools in 2011 – death, and more particularly, reburial, is a considerably more sensitive subject among Native Americans.
Since construction workers uncovered the first human remains while laying a sewage line in late March, the school district has been in a balancing act: On the one hand, it had to persevere with the $14.9 million construction project, so as to be ready for kids come August – a miraculous feat that may yet come to pass.
On the other, it has had to comply with the elaborate edifice of state law pertaining to newly rediscovered cemeteries – a process that guaranteed exhumation – while honoring Southern Ute beliefs about death and reburial, which hold that death is not the end of a human being.
Beth Santistevan, media relations coordinator for the Southern Ute Tribal Council, said she did not think tribal elders wanted to comment on their views of death.
But testifying in Santa Fe last year before a national committee reviewing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, Southern Ute Tribal Council member Pathimi GoodTracks said, “We have hundreds of relatives waiting, waiting for reburial, and it is distressing to Native people when our ancestors are left in limbo.”
The school district has included the tribe in the excavation from the earliest stages, including arranging for tribal members to bless the land.
Asked about the difficulty of the district’s position with respect to exhuming the bodies, Rocco Fuschetto, Ignacio school district superintendent, said, “We just have to deal with it. I just have to take care of them, culturally and morally do what’s right. They’re still human beings and we still have to treat them with respect.”
On the afternoon of March 21, a construction worker discovered human remains. Work stopped, and Ignacio police were called to the site.
Since then, the district has tried to manage competing imperatives – build the schools, take care of the bodies – and nothing about the district’s continuing construction project has been legally, financially or culturally simple.
Indeed, numerous agencies have been involved. The lengthy list: Ignacio School Board, the Ignacio Police Department, La Plata County Coroner’s Office, the Office of the State Archaeologist, the Southern Ute Tribe, Durango-based construction consultant ERO Resources, two professors in FLC’s anthropology department, the firms KPMC and Okland Construction, the Colorado Department of Education and the Building Excellent Schools Today grant program, which initially awarded the district $5.8 million for its construction project.
In the case of the BEST Program, involvement has meant tapping into reserve funds, as the Ignacio school district, which has been forced to use magnometers to ferret out potential corpses, has been stuck with the bill for the ongoing and ever-expanding exhumation.
Ted Hughes, BEST Program director, said the circumstance defied the playbooks. “We’ve never had a situation like this,” he said.
He said the district had not yet presented him with a final accounting of the exhumation’s costs.
Though the project of exhuming the bodies has involved numerous public agencies, many public employees and even elected officials declined to speak to The Durango Herald about the exhumation on the record, fearful of offending the Southern Ute Tribe.
The tribe, which was worth an estimated $4 billion in 2007, is vital to the continued health of the cash-strapped Ignacio school district.
The district, in addition to receiving tribal funding for many district programs, receives federal money for every Native student enrolled because the tribe does not pay property taxes.
When Sean Larmore of ERO Resources, which estimated its total costs for the exhumation at $45,900 in an email to the district (billing the Ignacio School District in excess of $20,000 for its services in April alone), abruptly canceled an interview with the Herald about the exhumation, saying the Tribe had requested him to, the Herald filed multiple requests for information with different governmental entities under the Colorado Open Records Act.
Many of these requests are still pending.
But correspondence provided to the Herald by the Colorado Department of Education shows the school district eager to include the tribe from the earliest stages.
In the meantime, the district can’t count out finding more bodies on school grounds.
Coroner Smith said the excavation team had been “working in one area so the school can go on with construction – but there’s another area that hasn’t even been touched yet.”