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Front Page » June 16, 2009 » Opinion » The Wasatch Behind: Artifact armageddon
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The Wasatch Behind: Artifact armageddon


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By TOM MCCOURT
Guest Contributor

Anyone who has been to Lake Powell knows that San Juan County is dotted with Indian ruins. They are everywhere. People who live in the area discover artifacts in their travels as a matter of routine. Farmers find them in their fields, cowboys find them on the cattle ranges, and recently a man from Blanding found a whole pit-house complex in his front yard while digging footers for a new garage. Backpackers, hunters and tourists find things, too. The stuff is everywhere.

For years people just took the artifacts and never worried about it. Even our most prestigious universities did little more than pot-hunt artifacts in the early days. In fact, the University of Utah bought artifacts from people in southern Utah until the 1950s. I know that because I have a degree in anthropology from the "U" and I've seen the collections tucked away in the dusty basement of the museum. The school had certain "contacts" in San Juan who kept them supplied with new and interesting finds that the school paid top dollar for. Of course this practice encouraged the economic exploitation of Indian ruins.

And for years, antique stores and commercial dealers paid good money for artifacts, no questions asked. An outfit named "Lear's" from Glenwood, Ark. had whole catalogs of Anasazi artifacts for sale to the general public. It is not surprising that several families from economically depressed San Juan County supplemented their incomes by finding and selling artifacts.

And then, there were many people who simply collected and kept the things they found. I am one of those. I spent time in the early 1950s at Hite and White Canyon with my grandparents before there was a Lake Powell. I began collecting arrowheads at the age of six. I'm not ashamed of that. I'm happy I was able to rescue a few small things before Lake Powell destroyed them.

Attitudes about collecting have changed over the years. Not so long ago it was cool to collect artifacts. My Boy Scout troop went on arrowhead hunting campouts and awarded prizes for the best finds. In the 1960s, the first board of directors of the CEU Museum sponsored artifact hunts to gather material to display in the Price museum.

But slowly attitudes changed as people became better educated and more enlightened. The federal Antiquities Act of 1979 and the Native American Graves Repatriation Act of 1990 pretty well put an end to the indiscriminate looting of archaeological sites - or should have. Unfortunately, some of it still happens.

And so, it was with a heavy heart that I watched events unfold in San Juan County last week. Most of us are aware of the raids by federal agents on suspected artifact traffickers in Blanding. I make no excuses for, or judgments about, those who were arrested. I don't know the people or the circumstances. I do know that most of the people taken into custody were in their late 50s through late 70s, and being a member of that generation with roots in southern Utah, I understand their history, mindset, and motives.

But what bothers me most is the way the raids were conducted. Of those arrested, 22 of 24 had no prior criminal history, according to news reports. And all were charged with non-violent crimes in this case. And yet the feds swooped in like the seventh cavalry avenging Custer's massacre. According to the channel two news in Salt Lake City, 78-year-old Harold Lyman had 25 federal agents, wearing full SWAT gear and carrying assault rifles, surround his home in the early morning hours and take him away in leg irons and chains. All of the other defendants were treated the same way. Lyman is a prominent, well-respected citizen of Blanding with years of faithful service to the community. Did the feds even consider that a man like that might surrender peacefully if the county sheriff served him with a summons? I don't know the man, but I'm sure he would have come to the sheriff's office if called on the phone.

There must be a special motive behind the grandstanding, aggressive actions and chest-thumping publicity event following the raid. Are the feds sending us a message? Are they trying to create fear and intimidation? Is this a preview of things to come?

This whole thing smacks of Waco, Ruby Ridge, and the Texas anti-polygamy raids of last year. The excessive use of force and the rough and insensitive way these non-violent "criminals" were treated reminds us of Hitler's Gestapo. It shows a calloused disregard for common decency, due process, and the principle of innocent until proven guilty. I don't know what is happening to my country anymore. It seems the people who run our government are doing all they can to make us fear and hate them.

What could possibly be their motive?

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June 16, 2009
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