In late April, at the site known as Birthing Rock near Moab, Utah, vandals degraded millennial petroglyphs, scribbling the words “white power” and other obscene graffiti, including an ejaculating penis, on red sandstone. Only one of the rock’s four petroglyph panels remained unharmed. The vandalism came just weeks after a climber locked climbing routes on petroglyphs near the Sunshine Slabs, north of Utah’s Arches National Park.
“I think people see these (incidents) as a victimless crime, and they are not.”
Recent acts of vandalism serve as a reminder of the need for greater protection and education on public lands, say indigenous archaeologists. “A lot of people have no idea of contemporary Aboriginal peoples and their connection to archaeological resources,” said Ashleigh Thompson (Red Lake Ojibwe), a PhD student in archeology at the University of Arizona and avid rock climber. “I think people see these (incidents) as a victimless crime, and they are not.”
When the pandemic forced Americans to seek shelter in place, public lands provided much-needed refuge. But with the increase in the number of visitors, there has been an increase in vandalism. Although overall visitation to national parks fell in 2020, in part due to numerous park closures in the early months of the pandemic, more than 15 parks have set new records. Visits to Arches National Park increased by almost 70% during part of 2020 compared to previous years. In January 2021, visits to Canyonlands National Park increased by 100%, which, according to a National Park Service press release, has resulted in “extended wait times to enter the park, illegal parking creating safety and resource conservation issues, and visitors walking on and along. roads to access viewpoints and trailheads, creating dangerous conditions.
“What we’ve seen in Utah in all the land agencies – the Parks Department, the State Parks, the Bureau of Land Management – is that we have an increase in tourism. And we are seeing a proportional increase in damage to archaeological sites, ”said Elizabeth Hora-Cook, archaeologist with the Utah State Historic Preservation Office. “And when we see that more people equals more damage, we know that the same proportion of people are not getting the message about how to visit sites with respect.”
“What we have seen in Utah – is that we have an increase in tourism. And we are seeing a proportional increase in damage to archaeological sites. “
The Utah State Historic Preservation Office, Bureau of Land Management, and nonprofits like Friends of Cedar Mesa have campaigned to raise awareness and educate the public. Hopi archaeologist Lyle Balenquah believes there is a need for continued localized education on visiting archaeological sites throughout Utah. “You can’t just have a workshop, a Zoom panel session and say it’s good,” Balenquah said. “There are always new people who come to these sports and who are introduced to the regions in general. There must be people on the ground who talk to people as much as possible.
But even when educational resources are available and widely disseminated, information does not always reach its target audience. Tourists may not know how to visit archaeological sites with respect.
When climber Richard Gilbert scaled Sunshine Slab, he thought the petroglyphs he was heading on were just modern graffiti. In a story of Climbing magazine, Gilbert took a photo of the three routes he had bolted and posted the route information on Mountain Project, a website that lists climbing routes around the world. One of the captions read: “Graffiti – There is a fair amount of graffiti on this route, PLEASE DO NOT add to it!”
Some non-natives don’t understand the importance of places like Birthing Rock and Sunshine Slab because they have no idea what the sites mean to indigenous people, said Angelo Baca, a doctoral student in anthropology at the ‘New York University. From an Aboriginal perspective, petroglyphs are considered relatives. “They are alive. They have their own minds and they have their own agency and must be respected, ”said Baca, who is also the cultural resources coordinator for Utah Diné Bikéyah, a nonprofit that strives to preserve and protect people. cultural and natural resources of the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute and Uintah Ouray Ute tribes.
“Indigenous peoples have been murdered, fought and evicted, so that settlers can gain access to these lands.”
Much of Utah’s land, as in many western states, is owned by the federal government. When an act of vandalism occurs, the complex web of federal, state and private property leaves the tribes with little means to pursue legal action, said Clark Tenakhongva, vice president of the Hopi tribe and co-chair of the Inter Coalition. -tribal Bears Ears. . As a result, he said, perpetrators are rarely held to account. “These are the obstacles that we must constantly fight.”
There is often a mismatch between how Indigenous and non-Indigenous people see and experience the landscape, Thompson said. “There is a colonial attitude of the settlers not only to climbers, but also to outdoor recreational hikers and mountain bikers, which gives them the right to claim whatever they want, regardless of climbing bans and what the indigenous peoples of these regions think or want. “Many non-Indigenous visitors do not realize that the public lands they enjoy were created at the expense of the original inhabitants, who were forcibly evicted,” said Thompson. evicted, so that the settlers can have access to these lands. “
The BLM is offering a reward of $ 10,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person (s) responsible for the vandalism. If you have any information regarding this vandalism, please contact BLM Law Enforcement at 435-259-2131 or 800-722-3998. You can remain anonymous.
Jessica Douglas is a writer at High Country News and a member of the Confederate tribes of the Siletz Indians. Email him at [email protected] or send a letter to the editor.
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