Two people are dead, and a lot of the living are furious. After an early-morning FBI raid last month in the Utah town of Blanding, which ended with 19 residents hauled in for trafficking in ancient artifacts, one of those indicted, a local doctor, sat in his Jeep and breathed in poisonous carbon monoxide. The second man used a gun to kill himself.
The raid in Blanding, Utah, was just the latest in a string of federal decisions that riled the locals. This spring, several hundred people rode up a riverbed to protest new BLM rules that would reduce access for ATVs. "Tea Party" protests against the federal government have been popular here in southeastern Utah, and every week, it seems, letters to the editor warn shooters that President Obama wants to rewrite the Second Amendment and take away their guns.
It's tough to watch positions hardening when there's a local project underway that would protect artifacts in a way that doesn't demonize the locals who dug them up. I moved to Utah last year, and recently watched archaeologists and students whisk powdery red earth from floors that Native Americans popularly known as Anasazi built 1,000 years ago. It wasn't what they were finding that intrigued me, though, it was the precedent they've been setting.
The developer who owns this land has decided not to bulldoze-and-build in favor of protecting 28 acres of cultural resources. And the nonprofit behind this dig is setting other precedents that might eventually take the edge off the locals-versus-outsiders debate. The founders of the Kanab Archaeology Project aim to build a museum that will create jobs and educate children about the need to respect these ancient sites, much as they're taught to respect pioneer Mormon settlements.
"Pothunting is something that's been handed down through generations—that's just what you do," says John Jorgensen, co-chair of the Kanab Archaeology Project.
While trafficking in antiquities conjures pictures of mobsters or even the occasional corrupt museum staffer, many of the people the FBI arrested were Blanding residents in their 60s and 70s—people whose grandparents likely pocketed artifacts from public lands before a 1906 law outlawed the practice. Of course, what they did today—if they're found guilty—is illegal, but the problem has a historical context that should not be ignored.
Most pothunters will tell you that they're motivated by the discovery of Anasazi remnants; not by profit. The Kanab Archaeology Project hopes it can convince these freelance collectors—some of whom have collections that would "blow away the Smithsonian," according to one archaeologist—to bring their finds to the museum. There, they'd be an asset to the town and the center of research.
"We'll have an amnesty program worked out so that law enforcement doesn't come back on them," says Bill Welsh, co-chair of the archaeology project. He hopes to build trust, so that locals will also share pioneer journals, which often discuss where and how artifacts were found.
For the same reasons I find the ancient Anasazi mind-boggling, thriving, as they did, in a landscape that even today is remote, dry and daunting, I admire the Mormon pioneers who settled here. Tough as rhinos, they built 19th and 20th century equivalents of Anasazi great houses and irrigation systems. If you think of it that way, and even if you're an ATV-loather like myself, you can respect where their descendents are coming from.
"By asking locals, 'How would you feel if someone from New Jersey came in and took your pioneer heritage away?' maybe they can see how the tribes feel about these artifacts," Welsh says.
I'd like to see an end to the stereotyping and the bickering. I lived in the former Yugoslavia for nine years before moving here, and it vexed me that the locals, who were all white, spoke the same language, ate the same foods and wore the same kind of slippers inside their houses, insisted that they were so fundamentally different that they had to go to war.
There shouldn't be a conflict in southern Utah, either. Whether we're locals, outsiders or Native Americans, we all love this land. Still, Welsh and Jorgensen say they have no illusions about how fast they can raise money to build their museum, or how quickly they can create their program to educate young people.
"It may take a generation or it may take several generations, to have different cultures recognize how close they are," Welsh says. "My children may not be part of it, but we're thinking about the future."
Beth Kampschror is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a freelance writer in Kanab, Utah.