MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
In southwest Colorado, the need for safer transportation is coming into conflict with Native history. A new highway expansion will pave over several Native archeological sites, some of which were revealed during work on the highway. Ali Budner from member station KRCC reports.
ALI BUDNER, BYLINE: Archaeologist Rand Greubel is looking into a pit on a mesa just outside Durango, Colo.
RAND GREUBEL: So we're standing in front of a very large pit house from the Pueblo I period.
BUDNER: The deep, wide, circular hole in front of him is surrounded by juniper trees. It's about 30 feet across and more than 8 feet deep. There's a fire pit in the center of an earthen floor and ventilation shafts tunneled into the side walls.
GREUBEL: We knew right away that it was highly significant just because of the sheer size of it.
BUDNER: Greubel thinks this particular pit house was probably a center for ceremony or gathering for the Ancestral Puebloan people who lived here roughly 1,200 years ago.
GREUBEL: We treated the site with respect and a sense of awe.
BUDNER: The discovery may be significant, but its existence will be short-lived. That's because it's about to be filled in and covered up by a highway along with six other important ancient sites on this mesa. Archaeologist Dan Jepson is with the Colorado Department of Transportation. He says the agency doesn't have a choice.
DAN JEPSON: This is all about balance between the ethics that I have as an archaeologist in the context of working for an agency that destroys things in the name of progress.
BUDNER: Basically, the state is rerouting a steep, narrow 1 1/2-mile stretch of highway that it says was too dangerous for the increasing volume of traffic. Jepson says the department explored scores of other possible routes for this road, but this part of the country is so full of Native history that every option would have hit potential archeological sites.
JEPSON: So it came down to looking at the most prudent and feasible alternative for us to get from point A to point B with the least environmental harm.
(SOUNDBITE OF DIGGING)
BUDNER: Just down the road, crews are using pickaxes, shovels and brushes to finish excavating the last of the seven sites.
(SOUNDBITE OF DIGGING)
BUDNER: Sam Maez is a member of the local Southern Ute Tribe. The Department of Transportation invited him here to talk with the archaeologists about their work and the highway project as a whole. The tribe isn't fighting construction legally, but Maez isn't afraid to speak his mind.
SAM MAEZ: You know, after generations and generations of basically exterminating us and getting rid of everything that we believe in, and here we are picking the scabs of Mother Earth, you know, and wondering why and who these people were - well, they're us.
BUDNER: He alludes to the human remains the archaeologists found while excavating several of the sites under the proposed highway path.
MAEZ: You know, those are my family's bones in there. We don't have a ceremony to dig them up and put them somewhere else.
BUDNER: Maez says Native people have had to create new rituals in order to remove and rebury remains like this. But even though local tribes didn't have ultimate veto power to stop this project from moving forward, he says he does see a silver lining.
MAEZ: It's quite interesting to see how we lived, you know, and to compare in how we live today. But on the other hand, it's very hurtful and sad too, you know.
BUDNER: Artifacts from these excavations will be analyzed in a local lab and then eventually moved to the Canyons of the Ancients museum in Dolores, Colo. Construction on the highway itself is set to begin in the spring. For NPR News, I'm Ali Budner outside Durango, Colo.
KELLY: And that story comes to us from the Mountain West News Bureau.
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