Desecration AT Bears Ears ~ The Land Desk

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Jonathan P. Thompson
Jun 3

Last week the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition tweeted a disturbing image showing bullet holes in a rock art panel in the Bears Ears region. This kind of vandalism and desecration of sacred sites is hardly unusual in the area—pothunting and other forms of historical destruction have long been a sort of tradition among the white settlers and their descendants, especially in southeastern Utah. Few archaeological sites have not been dug or scraped clean of artifacts, and nearly every accessible rock art site has been graffitied or used for target practice. 

It may be possible to attribute those long-ago acts of vandalism to simple ignorance: Maybe those olden time folks didn’t understand what they were doing. They just need to be educated. Maybe. The same cannot be said, however, for more recent perpetrators, which includes whoever shot up the aforementioned panel. This clearly was not someone innocently using a blank piece of rock as a target (that’s not okay, either, by the way) who didn’t see the rock art. This seems to have been done with malicious intent. And, according to the Coalition’s Twitter thread, this sort of vandalism is on the rise in the region. 

I don’t know why someone would do this sort of thing. But I can’t help but wonder whether it’s politically-motivated, even in an unconscious way: a reaction to the designation and restoration of Bears Ears National Monument. 

After all, the opponents of the monument, from the late Sen. Orrin Hatch down to then county commissioners, repeatedly called this effort to protect the place an “attack on an entire way of life,” they said it would “destroy lives and livelihoods,” that it was a way for urbanites to displace “rural culture” and “rural heritage,” and that it would steal money from Utah school children. These were all lies, of course, meant only to foment fear and outrage among their constituents, to spark a backlash from which they could profit politically. 

A well-known rock art panel in Bears Ears National Monument that has been shot at in the past. Jonathan P. Thompson photo. 

That they would lash out at the very sites the monument is meant to protect is not without precedent. Cal Black, one of the Sagebrush Rebellion’s founding fathers, reacted to a proposal to designate Utah land as wilderness by threatening to “blow up bridges, ruins, and vehicles. We’re going to start a revolution.” He didn’t actually do any of that, but there was a subsequent rise in what appeared to be politically motivated vandalism of archaeological sites in southeast Utah. 

Maybe we’re seeing a repeat of that. If so, then the Orrin Hatches, Phil Lymans, Mike Lees, and others who spewed false rhetoric about the destruction of culture and livelihoods are partly responsible, too. 

In the meantime, it’s imperative that the Bureau of Land Management create a robust management plan for the monument backed up adequate funding for enforcement. 

The Land Desk

Birthing Rock petroglyph panel near Moab defaced

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…

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