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Listen to photographer Ira Block as he describes the challenges of this sensitive assignment.

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Pueblo Ancestors Return Home
About 80 years ago, the bones of some 2,000 Native Americans were excavated and sent to Harvard for study. Now the spirits of those ancestors are at rest after their remains were returned home to their descendents for reburial. Photographer Ira Block—who in 25 years has covered for National Geographic such subjects as North Pole dog sledding, Olive Oil, and Sue, the world’s most famous T-Rex—documents what’s been called the United States’ single largest repatriation of Native American ancestral remains.

Forum: Share your thoughts on the repatriation of Native American human remains and artifacts.

On Assignment: Ira Block and author Cliff Tarpy share their experiences in the field.

Photograph by Ira Block

At Rest, At Last!
A personal account of the assignment from photographer Ira Block.

It was a pretty emotional day for Pete Toya, the Jemez Pueblo war chief. It’s May 22, 1999, and he’s walking around the gravesite at Pecos National Historical Park, where his ancestors were just reburied. I guess he’s reflecting on what went on that day.

I met the people of Jemez Pueblo a few years ago when I was doing some work on the ancestral Puebloans. Even though they are a fairly conservative, closed pueblo, and they don’t usually allow access to a lot of outsiders, they asked me to document the repatriation of their ancestors. I was honored, so I went to National Geographic with the story idea, and they jumped right on it.

One of the limitations of shooting this story was that the tribal members did not want me to photograph the bones, out of respect for their ancestors. I understood that, but how do you show a reburial without showing bones? This picture with Pete standing in front of the gravesite and the box in the background that held some of the remains helped quite a lot. It helped to get the point across even more when the tribe allowed me to use an old black-and-white photo of Alfred Kidder, the archaeologist who originally excavated the remains. In the picture he is sitting next to Native American skeletons as well as caskets holding the bones of Spanish priests. All of this helped me to show how history has come full circle for these people.

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