Getting digs in: On the 6/11 SE Utah artifact raids

Saturday, June 13.  As I was coming up out of Crossfire I heard voices.  Much has happened lately in our small, southeast Utah town, so I was curious about who might be coming into the canyon.  I saw a woman on the rocks above me, well off the trail, turning back in response to a companion’s call.  Picking up my step to be sure to meet them, I caught up with the two retirement-aged women—out-of-towners—as one helped the other over the arched rebar cattle guard at the trailhead.  They had no idea I was there.  I greeted them then asked where they were from.  They were coy about saying, replying only that they were visiting.  “You?” they asked.  I answered I lived up the road but was not originally from the area.  “Are you going to see the cliff dwellings?” I asked.  There’s a nice Ancestral Puebloan (“Anasazi”) structure at the base of the cliffs, a little off the beaten trail.  “Yes,” they said.   Then one of them pointed to the yellow, green, and white, heavy-gauge metal, BLM sign posted at the trailhead announcing the canyon’s September 2007 closure to off-highway vehicles (OHVs) and displaying the extent of the restricted area.

“But we really wanted to see this,” one said.

“This sign?” I said, puzzled.

“Yes.  A picture of it appeared in the AARP Magazine.  They did an article on it.”  She said “AARP” as if it were a word.  I had difficulty understanding.

“Art Magazine?” I asked, thinking some artist or group interested in Ancestral Puebloan art had called attention to this canyon for some reason.  “No, AARP,” they said.  One spelled it.  “A-A-R-P.”

 “Ah, okay.  A-A-R-P.”

 “I just admire the group that did this,” Talkative Woman said.

Doubting she meant the Bureau of Land Management, the “group” that erected the sign, I said, “You mean, the group that got the canyon closed?”


 “The …” I tried to remember. “The Grand … uh, Great … Old … Broads for Wilderness?”

“They’re the ones!” Talkative Woman squeaked.  “I really admire them.”

So these two were Great Old Broads for Wilderness groupies—maybe even members.  The organization is based in Durango, Colorado but has thousands of members in numerous “Broadbands.”  While the group has done admirable work and is to be commended for caring so deeply about wilderness, the GOBFW’s purely objective-driven actions in this area—sweeping in from out of town, working legal mechanisms, and catalyzing Crossfire’s closure to OHVs without (to my knowledge) a word of dialogue with invested locals—touched off turmoil about which these two hadn’t  a clue. 

“Preserving cultural resources” is the reason often given for such acts, and indeed, the cultural resources do need protecting.  But sometimes these efforts—especially when initiated by “outsiders”—have opposite results as defiance mounts against them.  Certainly, at times it is not only necessary to regulate or stop exploitative or destructive behavior but it’s also measurably effective.  However, having lived in this area for almost five years, I’ve become aware of the more painstaking, deeper work that some in these isolated communities have been doing for decades, the actual turning-of-hearts teaching that lays the foundation for peaceful and lasting change.  The kind of lesson the GOBFWs taught the locals effects change in the way that pulling a rug out from under somebody teaches that person a lesson.  Compared to the more involved efforts others have made locally, what the GOBFWs accomplished with their “evidence gathering” activities in Crossfire comes off as the cheaper trick, an assertive rather than persuasive act.

Indeed, what my two new acquaintances appeared to adore here was the “silver power” aspect of the project, the sword-wielding gleam the act had to it.  They seemed unaware of the depths to which these matters run or of the effects they produce, especially in confluence with other acts.  Nor did they seem aware of the tragic circumstances that had unfolded in the community over the past few days, the highly-publicized, federally executed artifact raids, code-named “Cerberus,” after the three-headed dog Greek myth assigns guardianship of the underworld. 

I thought I might try showing these ladies something of the depth of feeling along whose trail they were so casually hiking.

I turned to the sign.  “As you can see, the sign has suffered some abuse.  Shot four times in the back and four times in the front.”

The more talkative of the two groaned. “Why would they do that?” she asked.

“It’s language in response to the sign.”

“Do you really think that’s what it is?”

 “I’m sure of it,” I said.

 “Oh, that’s just hateful,” Talkative Woman said.

 “Well … I guess it depends on how you look at it.  Come over here, I’ll show you something else.”

Down the trail a little ways I showed them a pile of juniper logs pushed off to the side.  These logs had once barricaded the trail—rather ineffectively—against OHV travel.   Two months ago someone broke up the barricade and pushed the logs aside.  Beneath the largest log now lies the brown plastic BLM sign prohibiting OHV travel, bent to the ground, its top anchored with stones, its prohibitive language silenced.

“Those butt-wipes!” Talkative Woman said.

I sighed.  “Like I said, it depends on how you look at it. Do you know what’s happened in this community over the last week?”

 “No,” the women replied.  “What?”

I told them the short version, how just two days earlier, a small army of armed and flak-jacketed FBI agents had ended a two-and-a-half year undercover investigation of illegal trafficking in antiquities, raiding the homes of and arresting twenty-four individuals in the Four Corners area, many of whom were from my community.  One of them, Dr. James Redd, was in my LDS ward. Federal agents dug into Dr. Redd with language threatening the loss of life as he knew it—the suspension of his medical license, years of imprisonment that could carry the sixty-year-old doctor well into his senior years, financial ruin, and so forth.  The next morning, Dr. Redd arose, left a note telling his family they could find him at the pond on his property, drove his Jeep there and took his own life*, apparently via asphyxiation.

“Oh, that’s awful.  How old was the doctor?” Talkative Woman asked.

“Sixty,” I said.

“Oh, that’s going too far,” she said.  Whether she meant the federal agents had gone too far in intimidating Dr. Redd to the point of despair, that the doctor had gone too far in taking his own life, or something else entirely, I couldn’t say.

 “Whatever the condition of this community has been, these events have thrown it into crisis,” I told the ladies.

This gave them pause.  The more quiet of the two said, “Some of these people had their collections before the Antiquities Act and other laws came into existence.”

“That’s true,” I said, opting again for the short answer.

 “Is there even anything out here anymore?” she asked.

 “You mean artifacts?” I asked.  She nodded.

How to answer posed some problem because it’s a more complicated question than the simple “yes or no” form supposes.  The answer is: Yes, there are lots of “things” still out here.  As far as the Ancestral Puebloan culture is concerned, and in spite of decades of pot-hunting and other acts of digging and collecting, a tremendous amount remains, buried in the middens of uncounted undisturbed sites and even in many of the disturbed ones.  

Crossfire is full of such sites.  I knew of several within the mile-long stretch I usually travel.  They include rubble mounds, rock shelters, and other features often littered on their surfaces with telltale sherds and lithic scatters, bits that provide records of trade and movement  to those able to read them.  Also, many of these sites hold tight in their middens and unexcavated spaces other meaningful artifacts. Many “things” have been left elsewhere, such as in rock chambers and cracks in canyon walls. But what did these ladies really need to know?  They had come here with ideas, their own and other people’s, ideas that they liked.

“Things are tucked away here and there,” I said.

 Quiet Lady said, “They say it’s a squeezed orange.”

 “That the artifact content of the area is a squeezed orange?”

 They nodded.  “That’s what some archaeologist said.”

The image flashed across my mind: half a ripe orange, a mere husk of a fraction of a whole, collapsed, drained.  More heightened rhetoric, a sound bite, a mind’s-eye-catching artifact of somebody’s more deeply buried intentions. It’s true that much has been lost, but it’s also true that much remains. I made no reply.

By now the no-see-ums had gathered and the two ladies were swatting the air and spritzing themselves and each other with insect repellant. I leaned against a rock, arms crossed at the wrists.  The insects swarmed me too, but from experience I knew that it takes a while for the nasty mites to work into position and bite down, and I guessed that our conversation was winding down.

 “Well, we’re going to move on on account of the bugs,” Talkative Woman said.  “Thank you, Dearie!”

“You’re welcome,” I said, turning in the opposite direction, heading home.  Out of curiosity, I found their car and checked their plates: Colorado.

I’ve seen pot hunting damage firsthand, sites hit very badly.  I’m haunted by images of skulls and other human remains churned up and tossed aside—men, women, children—remains meaningful to diggers only as signs that grave goods like pots, jewelry, or other unique or marketable artifacts might lie nearby.  The exposed human remains don’t trouble me so much for their grim “to this we must all come” reminder—though there’s always something show-stopping about coming upon human bones. Nor do they impress me for the unsettling evidence they offer of the pot hunters’ disregard for law.  To me, what’s telling is the pot hunters’ complete objectification of a culture, the shrinking of life down to “things.”  In reducing the ruins of this prehistoric civilization to mere exploitable resource, pot hunters and other kinds of dedicated collectors reduce themselves to the role of predator in a predator-prey relationship. Such a mind sees the other culture, animal, mineral, stretch of land—whatever the object of their interest might be—as existing mainly to service his/her hunger for whatever gain or obsession they seek to gratify.  In the case of pot hunters, their connections with the culture thus damaged, they further fail to imagine the importance of these “things” not only to sciences constructing the human narrative in general and the Anasazi story in particular but also to descendent cultures not so far south of here, the Puebloan peoples of New Mexico, Arizona, and Mexico to whom the Anasazi gave rise and who consider their roots—what we call “cultural resources”—in this area as sacred.  Thus pot hunters fail to see the life that the “things” signify.

Beyond this, collectors and traffickers in illegally obtained artifacts can’t feel the havoc they wreak upon their own psyches and, by extention, to their cultural surrounds, because really, when it comes down to it, in our communities we act in concert with or in reaction to one another.  What we do will affects others, sometimes others so far down the road they are out of view.  Many of the acts an individual engages in on self-seeking “It’s my life, I can do with it what I please” premise misdirects the language of freedom.  The entelechy of freedom—the vital force of true liberation—arises not in being able to do whatever one wants but in being able to do better than one does, alone or in company with like-minded people. 

In being so quick to call the locals “hateful” and “butt wipes,” Talkative Woman similarly reduced a culture to an exploitable resource, in this case getting her dig in to bolster tightly held beliefs.   Just as the area’s  isolated Anasazi ruins make easy targets for pot hunters, the people of Southeastern Utah are an easy target for rhetorical exploitation and ideological  artifact collecting.  The towns here—originally Mormon settlement communities—are small, separated from each other by wilderness.  Their populations are not especially vocal.  Furthermore, as targets go, they’re politically uncomplicated. Amy Irvine’s Trespass, the bulk of which takes place in southeastern Utah, is nearly cover-to-cover cultural artifact collecting and glassed-in display, as was the GOBFW’s newsletter when they touted their good work in the world, reserving the Crossfire for what they called quiet users.  The BLM, too—I’ve heard, here and there, the set of their language as they’ve come down the trail discussing enforcement matters.  Crossfire’s acoustics are excellent. 

Human language is both a cultural and a natural resource.  If exploitation of a culture for personal gain is wrong, whether it be for monetary gain, to enhance one’s sense of righteousness, or to advance oneself socially or professionally, then given the amount of digging language focused on this region there’s been enough tossing of skeletons and upending of lives, present and past, in and around Blanding and Monticello to go around, including from out-of-area crusaders who visit higher truth upon the heathens. 

If you upend a culture to teach it not to upend another culture, then the act becomes more about the upending and much less about the teaching.  To find the better way, find the better language.  Creative, proactive, reaching language opens the frontiers, does the necessary work to build bridges, and produces an array of possibilities from which others might choose.  It maps the unexplored terrain of actual relation, it gets across.

As for the FBI codenaming their investigation and subsequent raid “Cerberus”: Ovid tells us that the triple-headed hound of hell’s saliva was poisonous.  When Hercules dragged him up from the underworld in the process of completing one of his labors, Cerberus in a foaming fury drizzled the area with spittle.  Foaming around the mouth suggests not only that Cerberus was in a rage but also that he was rabid.  According to the story, this poisonous spittle engendered the growth of aconite, a plant of deadly toxicity.  The witch Medea used this plant’s poison to try to kill Theseus, her husband Aegeus’ son.


*A second person Cerberus bit has taken his own life, Stephen Schrader of New Mexico.

19 thoughts on “Getting digs in: On the 6/11 SE Utah artifact raids”

  1. I remember seeing the not-much-talked-about-except-to-the-right-people collection of a uncle of a friend in Kanab when I was 9 or 10. I had very mixed feelings even then.

    This is much larger more complicated wound than that.

  2. What is a more complicated wound, Wm? And more complicated than what?

    I think of it more as an environment than a wound. There’s a complicated set of relationships, as you say, that extends beyond the 4-Corners region, running all the way back East, back to Europe and down into all other countries, back through history, back before there were laws protecting “cultural resources.” Folks feel fascination for artifacts. In some ways, for some, “having something” satisfies a desire for connection to a people or place. The tourist business floats or sinks on that desire. But perhaps there are better ways to establish connection than the more culture-stressing, clearly illegal ways some resort to.

    However, as I say in the post, if we step back and look at the broader nature of dedicated collecting of illegal artifacts or pot hunting, a more encompassing horizon comes into view: that of taking things—things not offered—out of context to hold on to ideas or behaviors that do damage. Especially, I’m interested in what the language of those involved reveals. Whatever’s going on, it’s all there, in the language. That’s the first action people take to launch themselves into something and the first action they take afterward to appraise their success or failure—they come up with a narrative take.

    It seems to me, in these circumstances, that many entities are in it for whatever narrative take they can get.

  3. It’s much better to think of it as an environment that a wound.

    But what I meant is that viewing the violence done with the small collection I saw now seems like less of a tear in culture in all that you talk about above and the mess you describe.

    And by complicated, I mean more complicated than it at first seems for those like the two women you conversed with or their counterparts on the other side of the ideological reduction.

  4. With this kind of trouble, the tears in culture do get spread around. Because I’m an outsider—recently moved to the area, not related to anybody here—I have not been affected directly. But this community’s suffering for the loss of a member very valuable to them is palpable.

    What I hear is that authorities carefully avoided the more politically unsatisfying targets—Navajos who also dig Anasazi ruins and sell grave goods. I don’t know much about this, only what I hear. Used to be, Navajos wouldn’t go near Anasazi ruins, especially the middens, where the dead are buried. Many still respect the traditional ways regarding the Ancestral Puebloan ruins. But judging from my students’s papers, beliefs and conditions have shifted dramatically. So where twenty-five years ago I would have doubted it if someone told me Navajos were mining the ruins, now I think this could be true.

    Many in the communities of Blanding and Monticello depended on Dr. Redd to be there for them. He delivered many of the residents when they were babies and had delivered many of the next generation. The write-up of his funeral in the local paper remarks on how many people went through the line at the viewing and told the family, “Your father saved my life.”

    As for the out-of-towners who find residents of this part of the state attractive scapegoats—it’s always fun to locate the source of turbulence rocking one’s peace of mind in external circumstances. “Those Blandingites. Those Monticelloans. If they would just behave like me then my world would be perfect.”

  5. .

    Generally, stories are told from far away and with only one voice. We need all stories from multiple angles. Otherwise, we do not understand at all. Though it it easier to believe we do. And this is dangerous.

  6. Interesting point, Th.

    This particular story environment abounds in competing narratives—stories vying for ascendancy, to become the controlling narrative. As part of their hard sell, many of them lay claim to “the truth.”

    Control, not truth, is usually the driving desire of such stories. Control the language of any given set of circumstances, you can more efficiently control the outcome, bending it in to your intentions. Limit the language and you appear to secure your narrative take of the available resources.

    Yes, this is very dangerous. At its best, it’s bullying language, meant to intimidate and wrest control through brute strength (name-calling, threats) and sandbox fear. At worst, it tips over into binding spells and tyranny, what Joseph Campbell calls the “Holdfast” behavior exhibited by the dragons, the human tyrants who usurp “to themselves the goods of their neighbors … and are the cause of widespread misery.” In this case, the “goods” such language usurps is actual truth, difficult to lay hands on on any given day, and yet having the freedom to strive for it is absolutely necessary to the health and progress of any given community.

    The environmental movement is likewise brimming with competing narratives that take the “squeezed orange” approach to rhetorical dominance—and worse.

  7. Patricia,

    As far as I am concerned, the Antiquities Act imposes a sort of authoritarian discipline, one that may not even be warranted. Many of the pot hunters are exploring and exploiting resources that will never be discovered any other way. Trained archaeologists just aren’t that easy to come by.

    My dad tells about all the Anasazi ruins that were drowned when Lake Powell was filled. He had a friend that worked at the Bureau of Reclamation then. Instead of allowing the relics to be saved, they kept the locations secret and let the encroaching water cover sites, in accordance with policy. Imagine how much was ruined by such stupid inaction!

    Now the government is trying to act as though these people who have lived with the ruins for generations should never have touched anything. The policy is just as stupid.

  8. Patricia,

    If you discovered an artifact in your own back yard, where you had lived for your entire life, what attitude do you feel about it? Are we justified in thinking of these people as “pot hunters”, which is an unmistakable pejorative term that colors the discussion unalterably.

    I for one would like to see a more measured response. Government-sponsored or not, not all of them are evil incarnate.

  9. Jim,

    Re: #1.

    As far as I am concerned, the Antiquities Act imposes a sort of authoritarian discipline, one that may not even be warranted.

    I think it is warranted a good deal of the time. Do you know that some of the Hopi, one of the descendent peoples of the Anasazi, make pilgrimages up here (to the 4 Corners region) to visit sites of their origins? An archaeologist friend reports he sometimes comes across shrines they’ve build on Ancestral Puebloan sites. Is this so different from the Mormon church and private Mormon individuals seeking to protect sites, recover historic documents, or restore buildings of historic importance where the church’s origins are concerned?

    I think the Antiquities Act takes the first steps, be them at times heavy and unsteady, along a better path to cultural awareness. That sometimes the laws associated with it and related laws, like the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, are sometimes applied awkwardly, are not applied consistently, or are used as weaponry where actual teaching and talk be the better act, tells us more about the people using the language of these laws than about the laws themselves. Just guessing here. Not a lawyer, not an archaeologist, not a federal agent, not an Indian.

    * * * * *

    Many of the pot hunters are exploring and exploiting resources that will never be discovered any other way.

    Does mere discovery justify an act of exploitation? If I found a baby left out in the desert somewhere that no one else would have been likely to discover it, I might be greatly tempted to keep it. But law requires that I report such a find, and then the business of true discovery—putting together the story of how that baby came to be in the desert and following the lines of relation and legal association—come into play. In this case, I might be able to foster or adopt the baby later, and probably I’d want to keep my hat in the ring for such a chance, but simply discovering the baby and making it part of my story without knowing what it’s real story is might well cause somebody else misery and mourning.

    * * * * *

    Trained archaeologists just aren’t that easy to come by.

    I never seem to have any trouble finding one. Or several. I can’t get away from them. ;-)

    Now the government is trying to act as though these people who have lived with the ruins for generations should never have touched anything.

    Well … I think the enforcement of the laws involved is little more broad-minded than that. This is not to say that those who execute these laws always act with pureness of heart and clearness of mind. Abuses happen, or sometimes the law is turned to personal advantage.

    * * * * *

    Re: your #2.

    If you discovered an artifact in your own back yard, where you had lived for your entire life, what attitude do you feel about it?

    I have found a few pot sherds in my front and back yards. They get kicked up in much-used paths and churned up in my garden. Because the provenance of these bits is questionable—for all I know, the kids of folks who owned the house before brought them it—I simply place them on rocks in my garden.

    If in digging a foundation for a structure or expanding the garden, etc., I found a skeleton, whole pots, or other artifacts in situ—in their seemingly original context—you bet I’d go tug on the sleeves of one or more of my archaeopals and ask, “What’s the best thing to do?”

    Because we’re talking about relationships here, not things. I would want to learn what the best thing would be to do for all interested parties.

    * * * * *

    Are we justified in thinking of these people as “pot hunters”, which is an unmistakable pejorative term that colors the discussion unalterably.

    I don’t know that people who mine resources on their property are called pot hunters. I think that term is reserved for folks who break the law by digging on public land without legal permits or hit sites on private land without permission, and who have as their object illegal traffic of illegally-acquired cultural artifacts. After all, folks who steal modern cultural artifacts with the same purpose in mind are called “thieves.”

    However, as a term, “pot hunter” can be applied too broadly, just like any other term can be. That’s what this post addresses—people using language to get in their digs at people.

    * * * * *

    I for one would like to see a more measured response. Government-sponsored or not, not all of them are evil incarnate.

    Hey, I’m all for more measured responses myself. Among everyone involved.

  10. Patricia,

    I always appreciate your responses. If we were in complete agreement on things, discussions would be far less interesting and certainly less productive.

    Yet we can agree, I think, that people who feel so strongly about the raids that they take their own life are an indication of something gone awry. Why the heavy-handed tactics? There is no measure of justice here that justifies destroying living human life to save a few ancient relics.

  11. If we were in complete agreement on things, discussions would be far less interesting and certainly less productive.

    Yep. When people reach agreement, then the thinking has been done. ;-)

    BTW, for anybody wanting more context for my remarks re: Amy Irvine’s Trespass, go here. (Link in “here”.)

  12. Yes, and I used to think I understood all there was to it. “Territorialism,” I thought. Defense of “mine” against others. Only recently have I begun to see the active exploitational elements of the language involved. Seeing another depth to it has taught me an important lesson about presuming to know what something means.

    In trying to imagine how to avoid the problem in my own thinking (just this weekend I identified myself to a group as an “outsider”), I’m thinking I might try identifying myself as a “besider.” Or maybe an “alongsider.”

  13. I guess I am a part of things. Maybe a kind of witness, somebody caught up in circumstances by tricks of timing and proximity.

    What I do know is that I have a lot to learn about what’s going on. Now that I’m here, I want to understand as much as possible.

  14. I just want you to know I’ve come back several times to re read this post. I added a link to it on my Facebook page. Thanks for being a kind of advocate for some of us non-desert wildlife, too.

  15. I appreciate your interest, Lora. This topic is becoming a big one for me, it matters how others react to it.

    And thanks for the link.

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