I’m not a religious person, so I have, in the past, missed signs around me that had spiritual implications. For example, when I was researching my novel Wolf Catcher—which will be released by TouchPoint Press on February 2, 2022–I didn’t understand how offensive some of my choices were in that regard.
Originally, I was hired to write a magazine article about the man they call The Magician. His fabulous, nine-hundred-year-old tomb had been uncovered by archeologists in 1939, beneath a pueblo on a lonely hillside about ten miles from Flagstaff, Arizona. Back in those days, no one thought anything of exhuming indigenous burial grounds, which now seems absurd. Logically speaking, there’s not much difference between rifling through the belongings of ancient mummies and digging up one’s modern-day grandmother. (Imagine collecting the jewelry from grandma’s body and selling her precious possessions on eBay.) And yet, that’s what been happening world-wide over the last several centuries.
As a kid, I grew up going to the Museum of Natural History in New York, where burial offerings from around the world were often on exhibit. The practice seemed quite common and acceptable. But, while trying to determine who The Magician might have been, I discovered just how offensive it is to put human remains and funerary objects on display. My first hint was a letter my editor at the magazine received when I stupidly requested a DNA test on The Magician. My reasoning seemed sound. The Magician was described by those who found him as different from the people who buried him in several ways. He was particularly tall for his time and did not resemble the Native Americans who populated the region. He was said to have Caucasian facial features, so my first thought was how did a man who may have had some European ancestry make it to what would become the American Southwest almost one-thousand years ago.
My request for scientific analysis was met with a hard no from the Hopi tribal authorities. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 stipulates that all remains and funerary objects must be treated with respect and dignity and that the destruction of any portion of a body—even something as seemingly insignificant as a tiny fleck of tooth for a DNA sample—is unacceptable and illegal.
At that point, I was so focused on getting my story done, that I didn’t really understand what the big deal was. Then, when I arrived to interview an archeologist I’d worked with previously, I was shocked when he didn’t appear. It would be another archeologist who would gently explain the problem. Archeologists, I learned, are bound by their relationships with Native American Tribes. If they want to dig on tribal or even public land, they must get permission. If they don’t follow the rules, they will be shut out, which would hurt their reputations as scientists and limit their ability to study. My investigation posed a threat to the man’s career, a risk he wasn’t willing to take.
While researching the story, I picked up a number of pottery shards. My logic was simple. I was on public land, so clearly I had committed no crime. But again, I was wrong. Those beautiful pieces of ancient fired clay, many so bright and vibrant they looked like they’d been painted yesterday, should never have been taken from their resting places, because once you’ve removed an artifact from its setting, you’ve destroyed its sense of time and place—it’s historical significance—something you can never get back.
After finishing Wolf Catcher, I found myself staring at those thousand-year-old bits of pottery and couldn’t pretend I hadn’t done something wrong. I spoke about my feelings with a friend who was a nondenominational pastor. She quickly responded that I should put the pieces back where I found them.
So, she and I traveled to Ridge Ruin where I gently returned the shards to the hillside. We stood on the rocky ground under which the pueblo lay hidden, having long ago been backfilled to protect it from looters. I stared at the spot where The Magician had been buried with such reverence all those years ago. My friend asked me to apologize for my mistake, which I did.
As I said earlier, I’m not a religious person, and yet, as we left that windswept hillside that held the remains of Ridge Ruin in its belly, I felt better. And I promised myself I would not make the same mistakes ever again.
The past and present collide when a tenacious reporter seeks information on an eleventh century magician…and uncovers more than she bargained for.
February 2, 2022
In 1939, archeologists uncovered a tomb at the Northern Arizona site called Ridge Ruin. The man, bedecked in fine turquoise jewelry and intricate bead work, was surrounded by wooden swords with handles carved into animal hooves and human hands. The Hopi workers stepped back from the grave, knowing what the Moochiwimi sticks meant. This man, buried nine hundred years earlier, was a magician.
Former television journalist Kate Butler hangs on to her investigative reporting career by writing freelance magazine articles. Her research on The Magician shows he bore some European facial characteristics and physical qualities that made him different from the people who buried him. Her quest to discover The Magician’s origin carries her back to a time when the high desert world was shattered by the birth of a volcano and into the present-day dangers of archeological looting where black market sales of antiquities can lead to murder.
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