What? I asked.
To dig up the remains of indigenous people who inhabited the continent for centuries; to categorize, classify, and display their remains all in the name of scientific research. My mother and grandmother said to leave those things alone.
There are the ideas of belonging and ownership. We (Diné) have no rights to the belongings of the Anasazi people. — Laura Tohe, author, assistant professor of English, Arizona State
Archaeology is much more a study of objective knowledge about “old things,” but I think when Indigenous people, Native Americans, talk about old things they mean things that are included as part of their culture, part of their cultural community, their traditions. Old things such as their language, and of course, things that they make, such as pottery, or clothes, or drums or prayer objects — things that come from the past, and old things that are presently used.— Simon J. Ortiz, author, professor of Native American studies, Arizona State
Winter can be a beautiful time of year in southeast Utah. It’s the light in winter, and the way it turns the sky a color of blue that’s hard to find anywhere else.
At Shirttail Junction in January the wind was trying to rip the metal roofing off a farmer’s shed, and the wind was whipping around Blanding, Utah — a bitter, biting, nasty wind. But down in the bottom of Comb Wash it was as nice as you could imagine, with scarcely a breath of a breeze. “I wish I had my crew up here today,” said Winston Hurst, as he showed me surface site after surface site, which from a short distance appeared only to be part of the rolling landscape.
Hurst is the field director of the Comb Wash Survey, a project funded by the federal government through the BLM as part of the 100th Anniversary of the Antiquities Act (1906-2006).
“We want to identify as many sites as we can in this area,” he said. “There’s about 40,000 acres. We can’t do it all. We have several years of survey. There are certain areas that are getting a lot of traffic, and we’re blocking those out. We’re making sure we survey these.”
They are surveying sites in both Butler and Comb washes, both north and south of Highway 95. They recorded 110 sites in the first 500 acres.
“We’re finding everything,” he said. “We have cliff structures; everything from camp sites to complicated large habitation sites with kiva depression and room blocks; we have Navajo sweat houses, and hogans; we have the old fork-stick hogans that the Navajo used to build. There are historic campsites, prehistoric roads, crossover trails, rock-art sites.
“We have sites going back to archaic times, Basketmaker sites, Pueblo I, II and III sites. We have Navajo and possibly Ute sites,” Hurst said.
The Comb Wash Project is one of the Antiquities Act focus projects.
“The Comb Wash area gets a lot of visitation and we want to map the area as well as we can,” said Nancy Shearin, BLM archaeologist. “That information will go into forming a management plan for the area.”
The University of Colorado is involved in the project. “It’s great having CU involved in the project,” Shearin said, “because they have so much experience working down here. They know the terrain and they are enthusiastic.”
Since Congress voted to enact the Antiquities Act, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, a great deal has changed — and yet, nothing has changed.
Sites still get looted — some by professional artifact-hunters who sell what they find to private collectors; some by people who want souvenirs; and some sites by people who simply do not know how to act.
A crime story
This is a true story. Most of the names have been left out to protect the guilty, as well as the innocent. It was a nice winter day about 10 years ago. A small group was gathered on the Guymon property up Cottonwood Wash, north of Bluff. Irv Guymon, at that time patriarch of the Guymon clan, was talking about the possibilities of establishing the Guymon Preserve, which would forever protect the land from development. Two hikers came puffing down the road. “Someone’s digging an Anasazi site up the wash,” one of them said. Most of the group left to fetch the a sheriff’s deputy. I stayed behind to watch the road. They came back pret- ty quick with a deputy in tow. We made a procession down the dusty road behind the deputy, the two hikers in his car, giving directions. In a little while the deputy came back to my rig. I could see two people with buckets and shovels standing off a ways at the archaeological site in question. “It’s OK,” he said. “It’s only [so-and-so], and it’s private land. They have permission to be up here.”
But there were several errors in that statement. First of all, it was a grave site, and it is always against the law to dig up a grave site, no matter where.
Secondly, it was on State of Utah land, and the diggers didn’t have permission to be up there. Nevertheless, the deputy took their names and released them. No arrests were made. They were well-known residents of Blanding. Human bones were found on the surface of the site. Six months passed and no charges were filed.
The Canyon Echo, a now-defunct monthly journal of southeast Utah, followed the case closely, and in September 1996, published a letter written by Ferrell Secakuku, chairman of the Hopi Tribe to Grand County Attorney William Benge, in which he said: “The vandalism and destruction of archaeological sites is a serious and revolting matter to the Hopi people. . . “The Hopi Tribe is dismayed at your apparent reluctance to bring these vandals to justice.”
The BLM published a report, in which archaeologist Dale Davidson wrote: “Archaeologists will find significance in 42SA23040 [the vandalized site] because preliminary field work has established that it contains information significant to understanding the prehistory of the Southwest and southeastern Utah. The cultural affiliation of this individual [human remains found at the site] cannot be absolutely determined, because the looters destroyed the grave.”
Almost a year later the case came before Judge Lyle Anderson in Monticello. Because the crime had been perpetrated on state land it was not pursued in federal court. A preliminary hearing was held in the 7th District court. Anderson made a distinction between an “organized” modern cemetery and an Anasazi grave site. He threw the case out. His action prompted outrage in many circles.
“To the Hopi people the vandalism of our ancestors’ homes and graves is no less of a heinous crime than had they vandalized the Washington Monument or excavated holes in Arlington National Cemetery,” said Secakuku.
Anderson was called a racist in the Salt Lake Tribune in two articles. The Utah Attorney General’s office filed an appeal: “A Monticello judge’s ruling that ancient Indian remains are not protected under Utah’s grave-robbing statutes is so unworkable and so racist that it runs contrary to human decency.”
In another article, attorney Eric Swenson said, “The Court should consider whether Judge Anderson should be jailed for what can only be described as flagrantly racist conduct.”
But nothing happened to Anderson. Ten years have passed. No one will ever know what happened at the Cottonwood Wash site those many years ago: who the people were, how they lived, how they died and were buried.
Archaeologists want to know these things. Native Americans want to know that the graves of their ancestors are not desecrated.
Vandalism and looting
Archaeology is celebrated throughout the Four Corners. A number of public institutions offer displays of pottery, jewelry, rugs, baskets, and ancient artifacts. Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum is one.
It’s a lovely museum, adjacent to an Ancestral Puebloan site, a Chacoan outlier. Edge of the Cedars and the Anasazi Heritage Center near Dolores, Colo., both are featuring exhibits to celebrate the Antiquities Act.
At Edge of the Cedars, the exhibit is called “The Archaeology of the Northern San Juan: the First 100 Years.”
“Why is there an Antiquities Act?” I asked Teri Paul, museum manager. “Prior to the Antiquities Act of 1906 the cultural resources out here were being mined. A number of archaeologists were concerned about site destruction, burial destruction, people literally mining sites for artifacts and taking them to private collections and to museums around the world.”
“We’ve had 100 years of this experiment. How’s it working out?”
“Overall it’s working really well,” Paul said. “In 1979 ARPA (Archaeological Resources Protection Act) was passed. If there hadn’t been any laws there would be nothing left now.”
But, she added, “Even so, the destruction continues.”
Taylor McKinnon, co-owner of Wild Rivers Expeditions, agreed. “Since the Antiquities Act was passed, the protection of these sites has been unsatisfactory. We see it on a daily basis.
“It’s not necessarily malicious abuse. It’s more that people aren’t educated on how to behave in archaeological sites. But the federal agencies have vast responsibilities and inadequate resources to take care of them.
“The irony of the whole 100th anniversary celebration,” McKinnon said, “is that a whole lot of attention is being paid to archaeological sites, but there is not the corresponding commitment to protect the resources.”
Apparently some members of Congress are troubled as well. A recent Denver Post article reported: “Troubled by vandalism and looting of archaeological sites . . ., some members of Congress are banding together to seek more resources to protect them.
“’These are beautiful, special, magnificent places we cannot afford to lose,’ said Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz. ‘Congress has asked for more money for BLM, (but) we have not received the support from the administration’.”