Op-ed: Utah’s disdain for Native heritage breaks my heart
Utahns pride themselves on being different, even exemplary, in their community spirit, neighborliness and respect for others.
Why, then, do our elected officials show indifference, and even contempt for the Native American archaeological treasures that grace our state? Utah is known for its exquisite rock art, cliff dwellings and dry desert caves. The state has some of the most spectacular, well-preserved and information-rich archaeological sites in North America, and perhaps the world.
People in many places revere and protect their archaeological resources, see them as treasures, and build economies around them. Machu Picchu, Stonehenge, Mesa Verde, the Great Wall, and many more come to mind. Utah, renowned as an archaeological wonder, chooses to ignore and neglect its heritage. And it breaks my heart.
Utah was one of the first states to protect archaeological sites from vandalism and unnecessary damage, and in 1973 established the Antiquities Section and the office of the State Archaeologist. Just a few years ago, that position was eliminated. Belt tightening, they said.
When federal officers arrested more than 20 people for taking artifacts and robbing graves of the ancient Anasazi people, Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett decried the “extreme show of force,” a sentiment repeated by many. Few, mainly Native Americans and archaeologists, spoke out against the desecration of heritage and sacred sites all artifact collectors are complicit in.
More recently San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman was convicted of two misdemeanors for leading a group of ATVs down Recapture Canyon near Blanding to protest its closing. Outraged, legislators took up a collection, and two of the first donors were Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who dipped into their own campaign funds. In addition, the governor has directed the attorney general to determine whether the road closure was legal.
Why should anyone care where Commissioner Lyman rides his trail machine? Because Recapture Canyon is graced with incredible archaeological riches. I have walked in Recapture Canyon and have seen the mysterious and awe-inspiring homes, storage structures, and places of worship built there by the ancient Anasazi. Should Recapture Canyon be open to motorized recreation? No more than should the Salt Lake Cemetery, the Cathedral of the Madeleine or Temple Square. We know how we are expected to behave in those historic, spiritual places, but we apparently think differently when it comes to Native American heritage and holy ground.
Sadly, many in our state do not respect Native culture and heritage. In doing so they fail to recognize a significant segment of our population and a substantial aspect of our heritage. Native people, whose ancestors lived in this area for 12,000 years before the first Mormons found their way to San Juan County, make up the majority of the county’s citizens. Just as it saddens me to see pictures of ISIS fighters desecrating ancient artifacts in the Middle East, it hurts to realize that our leaders have so little respect for the heritage of our region. I am deeply saddened to realize that Utah is still actively working to alienate and diminish our Native people, and wish it were not so.
Utah’s active disinterest in caring for its magnificent archaeological heritage led me to write to President Obama and ask that he use the Antiquities Act to designate one or more National Monuments to honor and protect Utah’s archaeological and native American heritage.
The state’s disdain for these treasures and cultures leaves no other option. I urge others to join me in asking our president to act.
Kevin T. Jones is an archaeologist, writer and blogger. He lives in Salt Lake City.