Thursday, December 28, 2017

Every Victory is Fragile, Every Loss is Catastrophic: The Grave Robbers and Pot-Hunters

 It's all about the attitude and point of view.

Would you feel outraged if someone spent time on a Civil War or Revolutionary War battle site, digging and digging, looking for bullets and artifacts to sell on E-Bay? Or even more to the point, digging up Civil War cemeteries for articles of clothing and the like? Maybe even the graves of your own ancestors? Does the mere thought of it make you angry? Perhaps you would agree that grave-robbers and pillagers are a particularly low form of human life?

Here's a story (from the exhibit at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington):

"While they were sawing, I noticed a carved seal on a deserted Indian shack back of the totem. I asked the Rev. P.P.D. Llwyd to help me take it down. In crawling up, he slipped and fell into a rank growth of blackberry vines. He was badly skretched in getting out." Elbert F. Blaine

This sea lion once rode a house ridge in the Tlingit village of Tongass. It was illegally removed and carried off to Seattle in 1899 by a group of Seattle businessmen on a totem pole hunt. The collectors visited Tongass in August, when most residents were away fishing. While some men sawed down Kinninook's pole (the so-called "Seattle Totem Pole," shown to the right of this photo), Blaine and Llwyd took the sea lion (shown on the roof of the house in the center left of this photo). When witnesses to the theft complained, a grand jury indictment was brought against the collectors. But the case was dismissed after the investigating federal judge had been entertained at Seattle's premier businessmen's club. To silence the public protest, the collectors raised $500 that they sent to Alaska. The Tongass owners of the pole did not receive this payment. The Burke Museum was given permission to display the sea lion by the late Esther Shea, Taantakwaan (Tongass) matriarch. The museum plans to return it to the Taantakwaan ("Sea Lion People").


Dominant societies and cultures do terrible things to the cultures they have impacted or destroyed. That's a horrible indictment on the human race, and no matter how sophisticated and compassionate we may like to think of our ourselves in this current period of history, it is still true. I was at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington the other day during a rare slow moment on our holiday travels, and I loved working my way through the paleontology exhibits. But it was this small display downstairs that caught my attention. It was one more example of our sordid history. Symbols and artwork of the Taantakwaan people were mere souvenirs to be collected. It was a century ago, but not a whole lot has changed.

The arid landscape of San Juan County, Utah may seem a world away from the temperate rainforests of Tongass and the Washington Coast temperate rainforests. But one thing is not different, even in the modern day: Native Americans are treated as second-class people. The population of the country is around 15,000, but you wouldn't know it to look at local governments. If I understand correctly (and I welcome corrections), the county government includes a single Native American.
Monument Valley, as seen from Cedar Mesa at the south end of Bear's Ears National Monument

San Juan Country is a rare center of support for Interior Secretary Zinke's and Trump's attempt to decimate the Bear's Ears National Monument, the large park established by Barack Obama in 2016. Elsewhere though, 80% of Utah's population and 98% of the population of the United States supports the monument, as well as the five Native American tribes that hold the land to be sacred.
The overriding consideration by Zinke and Trump was not the will of the American people; instead they claimed to be listening to local voices, but it is clear that they didn't do this at all. They listened to the corporation that wants to mine uranium within the present monument boundary, and they listened to local government officials who said the land really in all fairness belonged to them because their families had farmed and ranched the lands for five generations or so. This was said with no sense of irony. They ignored those who have inhabited and used this land for 10,000 years or more. The monument contains some 100.000 archaeological sites, and is one of the most important sacred landscapes in the southwest that is otherwise unprotected (yes, the land is administered by the Bureau of Land Management, but they are woefully understaffed, and under the current administration are more interested in leasing mine sites than preserving the past).
Worst of all, the pot hunters and grave robbers want to continue their activities unimpeded by rangers and Native American monitors. It's a local "cottage industry" conducted by people who have no compunctions about digging up gravesites with bulldozers and tearing down walls of ruins to get at artifacts that they can sell. These are people for whom the desecration of a civil war battlefield would be horrible, but they think nothing of destroying the grave sites of their fellow citizens, because money is their ultimate god. They are among the voices who oppose this monument, and the Trump administration has listened to them over the concerns of five different tribes who consider these lands sacred.