New Mexico Law Targets Gravediggers and `Pot Hunters'. While Indians, historians, support bill protecting burial sites on private lands, many landowners oppose it

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

NEW MEXICO, an internationally recognized site of prehistoric and Indian burial troves, is considering a law that would restrict the disruption of burial grounds located on private property. The law targets graverobbers and so-called ``pot hunters'' who have proliferated in this large but sparsely populated state as the value of burial objects, ranging from prehistoric Indian burial bowls to the buttons of Civil War combatants, has skyrocketed.

The proposed law, now in the state Senate after passing unanimously in the House, is drawing support from state historians, Indians, and others who believe burial sites are part of a common heritage that belongs to all. But the bill faces some vociferous opposition from a number of landowners, particularly in the southeastern part of New Mexico, who contend that buried objects, much like minerals or oil and gas, belong to the property owner.

This section of the state is also where the Mimbres Indians flourished until sometime before Europeans arrived in North America. Mimbres burial bowls, with their distinctive black-and-white geometric designs, have attained such stature on the international art market that people have purchased property along the Mimbres River based on the presence of Mimbres burial sites.

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Burials on public lands are already protected. The new law would extend protection to private property, by making the knowing and willful destruction of a burial site a fourth-degree felony, punishable by up to a $5,000 fine and 18 months in prison. The law would set up a permit system for property owners to dig on their own land, and calls for burial remains to be reinterred at descendants' request.

`GRAVEROBBING appears to be on the rise in New Mexico,'' says Thomas Merlan, director of the state's Historic Preservation Commission. ``And the primary motive seems to be pure profit.'' He says his interest in the law ``arises from the fact that these sites contain important information about the past. Once it's gone, we all lose.''

In addition to Indian burials, gravesites along famous frontier trails like the Santa Fe and the Butterfield have also been disturbed. The idea to strengthen burial protection actually arose from efforts to preserve the site of the Civil War battle of Glorietta Pass, north of Santa Fe. It is considered by some to be the Gettysburg of the West.

New Mexico would join a string of states, including Oklahoma, Florida, Delaware, and California, that have recently moved to strengthen protection of burial sites. Last year Kentucky changed desecration of burial sites from a misdemeanor to a felony after one case in which a well-known Indian burial site was pillaged.

Mr. Merlan says New Mexico's Indians, from the state's 26 tribes, are particularly ``outraged'' that their ancestors' remains are not protected from looting simply because they were not buried in white man's cemeteries.

The outrage doesn't stop there, however. Jack Inmon, an Indian art collector and amateur archaeologist from Deming, N.M., says the proposed law ``violates our constitution'' because it ``allows the state to come in and tell you what you can and can't do on your own land.''

A digger of Indian relics since childhood, Mr. Inmon has mounted a letter-writing campaign to encourage property owners to push their legislators for the bill's defeat. ``If it's the past they're worried about,'' he says, ``they're already protecting plenty of that on the public lands.''

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