Birthing Rock petroglyph panel near Moab defaced

Just the latest in a long line of destruction

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A collective cry of shock, rage, and sadness rang out around the Southwest this week after someone defaced and vandalized a millennium-old rock art panel near Moab known as Birthing Rock. The vandal scratched “White Power” and other obscenities over the artwork, overtly declaring the racism that underlies nearly all such acts of destruction. 

While the shock is certainly warranted, no one who has been paying attention should be surprised. Desecration of cultural sites is all too common in the Four Corners Country—it could even be considered a time-honored tradition among many of the non-Indigenous people who live in the region. 

“Few of the mounds have escaped the hands of the destroyer,” T. Mitchell Pruden wrote in 1903 of cultural sites in southeastern Utah, some of which are now part of Hovenweep National Monument. “Cattlemen, ranchmen, rural picnickers, and professional collectors have turned the ground well over and have taken out much pottery, breaking more, and strewing the ground with many crumbling bones.”

A few years after Pruden’s assessment, Congress passed the Antiquities Act, which made it illegal to “appropriate, excavate, injure, or destroy any historic or prehistoric ruin or monument” on public land. That did little to curb the destroyers’ rampage, which continued virtually unabated through the decades, slowing only somewhat after the 1979 passage of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. 

Now there is nary an archaeological site in the region that has not been dug and looted, and there are few petroglyph panels within sight of a road that have not been used for target practice or otherwise defaced. Sometimes the vandalism is less blatant, such as when someone pockets a potsherd or damages an ancient wall by stepping on it or drives climbing bolts into rock near petroglyphs or pictographs. Yet it can be equally destructive, nonetheless—like tearing the pages out of the only copy of a history book, thus rendering the history incomplete. 

Part of the reason these acts have gone on unabated is because the laws are difficult to enforce and even harder to prosecute. In order to convict someone under ARPA, the prosecutors must prove that the perpetrator knew they were pilfering, selling, or buying artifacts that were taken from public lands. (The BLM is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the Birthing Rock vandal). 

But another problem, in my reckoning, is that the perpetrators think their crime is victimless, that they believe that the “owners” of the “property” they are defacing “vanished mysteriously” centuries ago and “abandoned” their homes and other material objects and even the bodies of those who died. This is not only a misconception, but an outright lie. The descendants of the people who built and inhabited these dwellings are very much alive today and their ancestors never abandoned these sites. The laws intended to protect these sites help perpetuate the myth, in that they apply only to sites on public or on Indian lands and extend no protection whatsoever to sites on private land, the implication being that the sites belong to the landowner, not the people who built them or the descendants thereof. 

This same myth—that the ancient civilizations had disappeared, leaving no one behind—was used by early archaeologists to justify digging up graves, selling artifacts to high-dollar collectors and overseas museums, and to flagrantly display the mummified remains of human beings in a glass case, as was done to “Esther,” the name given to a woman who had been interred in a rock shelter near Durango over 2,000 years ago, and who was dug up in the 1930s by Zeke Flora, an amateur archaeologist. Esther was taken on tour around the region before ending up at the museum at Mesa Verde National Park, where she was on display for decades before park officials acknowledged the error of their deeply offensive ways. 

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, passed in 1990, acknowledged that the ancient civilizations never vanished and that human remains and artifacts recovered on public or tribal lands belong not to the federal government, but to the descendants of the people to whom the items originally belonged (although it still does not extend to private lands). And the archaeology community, in general, has made great strides in conducting their science with respect and incorporating Indigenous knowledge into their work—with exceptions

In response to the Birthing Rock vandalism, social media was flooded with calls for more education on the proper way to visit such sites. That will probably be effective when it comes to the thousands of well-intentioned folks who are already converging on the region, the ones who simply don’t know that pocketing an artifact or that rock-climbing over rock art is wrong. Yet all the #visitwithrespect tips in the world aren’t going to sway the type of person who carves racist slogans onto a petroglyph panel. Nor has education worked in the past for habitual pothunters—at least a few of the targets of the now notorious 2009 Blanding pothunting raid were repeat offenders who also had been prosecuted previously. They clearly didn’t learn their lesson.

Nor did the creation of a Bears Ears National Monument stop this type of destruction in and of itself. Yet a national monument designation can bring more resources to bear on the problem, along with more enforcement and enhanced education efforts. It also gives land management agencies more power to close off fragile sites altogether. More than that, by giving the tribal nations with roots in that landscape a bigger say over how it is managed and how the stories of it are told, the national monument could very well help the public see the link between the cultural sites of old and the tribal nations that endure today. And that may give the would-be looter pause, knowing that their crime does, in fact, have victims. 

Share The Land Desk

The Four Corners region contains many an epic story, stories that are written on the land in the remnants of villages and communities, shrines and “roads,” cornfields and various architectural features whose function remains unknown. These aren’t ruins, but memories, important cultural touchstones not just for the Pueblo people, but for all human beings. Picking up artifacts, digging up buried treasure, and vandalizing or otherwise disrespecting these touchstones is not only illegal, but an affront to the story. “Many of these places were consecrated as homes, or as shrines, just as we consecrate our homes and shrines today,” Jim Enote, of Zuni Pueblo, once told me. “They are not ruins. They are not abandoned. Once consecrated, they are consecrated in perpetuity. They are holy forever.

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11← PreviousSarah Fields1 hr agoLiked by Jonathan P. ThompsonThank you for this article. Another aspect of the destruction of ancient cultural sites in SE Utah was the destruction of large pit houses, kivas, food storage structures, burial sites, and other habitat structures when the White Mesa Uranium Mill was constructed on White Mesa south of Blanding and adjacent to the lands of the White Mesa Band of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The mesa is its own Archaeological District. The Mill was permitted under the Atomic Energy Act and, at the time, regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). At least 20 prehistoric sites were destroyed after the sites were “mitigated.” This means that licensed archaeologists excavated the sites and documented the results prior to destruction. Artifacts were stored away at museums in Salt Lake City and Blanding, but never shown to the public. The Bureau of Land Management transferred a number of sections that are part of the White Mesa Archaeological District to the Mill owner for a buffer zone in the early ’80s. Expansion of the Mill, as recently proposed, will mean additional destructive activities and economic benefit to archaeologists and the Mill owner, Energy Fuels Resources (USA) Inc. Industrial and extractive industries are just as destructive of the amazing cultural heritage in SE Utah as individuals who desecrate petroglyphs and pot hunt. Federal and state laws do not protect these sites. Sarah Fields, Uranium Watch, PO Box 1306, Monticello, Utah 84535 – 435-260-8384

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