This past week southeastern Utah was rocked by the arrest of 19 people in Grand and San Juan counties concerning antiquity law violations. Many of the people arrested are prominent in their communities and very nice people according to citizens who have known them for years that were interviewed on television.
But the fact is even nice people commit crimes and sometimes those crimes don't seem like much to those around them, while the outside world sees them as being very substantial.
I really understand the draw of southeastern Utah antiquities as it concerns Fremont, Anasazi and Archaic peoples. I think many of us are enamoured by those ancient citizens of our area and our imaginations about their lives and their living circumstances are very active. The artifacts of their time here, seemingly simple to us in our times where everything seems so dangerous and chaotic, is a draw to many who come across the ruins of these past lives.
I personally have had the bug concerning the mystery about their residency in the four corners area since I was nine years old when I read a kids book called "The Indian Mummy Mystery." It was one of those inexpensive Whitman books that were the rage in the 1960's. The story told of some boys who lived in southwestern Colorado and discovered an ancient habitation that has a mummy in it. I imagined myself being an archaeologist doing that kind of work and for years I thought that is what I wanted to be. That book had stoked my imagination ever since.
But the fact is that when someone discovers something in these ancient places, they shouldn't haul it home and stick on their bookcase or hang it on the wall. And certainly they shouldn't sell it to someone else.
Whether the people arrested are guilty or not remains to be seen. They should not be considered guilty until they have had a chance to either plead and/or face a trial. Already one tragedy has come from this situation; one of those accused apparently took his own life last week.
But regardless of whether these people did what the Department of Interior claims they did, the fact is that taking antiquities off federal lands is against the law. I have heard a lot of excuses about this activity excuses about this activity and why people do it, but none hold up to the fact it is illegal. And in fact it has been illegal for a long time. The first antiquities laws were passed early in the 20th century, but in the last 20-30 years those early statutes have been strengthened with new legislation.
One of the excuses I hear is that many of those who take antiquities grew up in the area and their family has been there for generations so they consider the land their own. Well it is theirs, and 300,000 million other American's land too. I grew up on a dairy farm in Murray, one that three generations of Shaws had lived on. Next to us was a small farm owned by a neighbor who had family on that plot of ground going back to the settlement of the Salt Lake Valley. But just because they had lived there so long didn't mean they could walk into our mechanical shop and take tools or parts. Not only the law, but consideration for neighbors prevented that. Those that steal from public lands, whether it be antiquities, trees, by digging up flowers or by running their ATV through a roadless open meadow, are in violation of the law. They are also inconsiderate of their fellow citizens.
As for the tactics the federal officers used to arrest people and search their homes, I cannot say because I wasn't there. However, having been a reserve police officer for a very short time in a metropolitan police force many, many years ago, it was standard procedure for the place where I worked that we cuffed everyone who was arrested, regardless of the offense. The reason: it was for the safety of all involved. Peace officers can walk into what seems to be the most friendly situation in the world and be shot dead because they aren't on their guard. When arresting someone, who knows what thoughts or feelings the detainee may harbor, regardless of their background.
Finally I find it interesting that those who wanted Tim DeChristopher thrown in jail and the key tossed into a very deep canyon are a lot of the same people who are complaining about the basis for these arrests. True, DeChristopher committed an overt act in front of many people, and these alleged crimes took place in quiet desert canyons and with a buyer who was actually a federal informant. But they were both illegal acts; one deprived legal businesses their right to bid on oil and gas leases; the other stole invaluable objects from the public and then transferred them to another person for money. Entrapment? Maybe; but no one twisted the sellers arms to get them to part with the relics for a few bucks.
I heard a comment on the radio just this morning that these poor people come from a very depressed place, where the economy has been hit hard. Possibly for some selling these objects might have meant keeping their homes or putting food on the table for their families. None of us should be so brazen as to not believe we might have done the same thing if we were in their shoes. Let us not make any judgements of the innocent until we hear their stories in court.
There are a lot of gray and fuzzy lines in the world. Nice, upstanding people, who wouldn't step on an ant if they could prevent it sometimes cross those lines.
And often it doesn't work out for the best.