Backstory: On 6/11/2009, in a raid dubbed “Operation Cerberus Action”, a large contingent of federal agents descended on San Juan County, Utah, and arrested several Blanding and Monticello residents for the illegal theft, selling, and trade of protected Native American antiquities. Among them was the esteemed Dr. James Redd, a longtime resident of the area. Dr. Redd was indicted, but the day following his arrest, after recording a long message to his family, he took his own life. This tragedy on top of the already shocking show of force resulted in unforeseen effects, some of which are still in play today, in the questionable prosecution of Rose Chilcoat and her husband Mark Franklin, for instance, for allegedly endangering livestock. This post expands on an earlier post titled “Getting Digs In.” The chapter has grown in length, so I’ve broken it into 3 parts.
June 13, 2009. Two days after Operation Cerberus took the town by thunderclap, and a day after Dr. James Redd committed suicide, I came up out of Crossfire and heard voices above me, near the trailhead. The town was still shaking, stunned by shock, outrage, and grief. I felt curious to see who might be coming into the canyon. I glimpsed a woman on the rocks overhead, well off the trail, turning back in response to a companion’s call. Picking up my step to intercept them, I caught up with two retirement-aged women—out-of-towners—as one helped the other over the arched rebar cattle guard at the trailhead. Something about them said, “Colorado”. They didn’t see me approaching, so I greeted them then asked where they were from. They were coy about answering, saying only they were visiting.
“You?” they asked.
I answered that I lived up the road but was not originally from the area. “Are you going to see the cliff dwelling?” I asked. There’s a two-story Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling a little off the beaten trail in the crease between the cliffs’ base and the talus slope. I thought they might be hiking in to see that.
The woman who seemed most willing to engage in conversation said, “Yes.” Then she pointed to the yellow, green and white, heavy-gauge aluminum, BLM sign posted at the trailhead announcing the canyon’s 2007 closure to off-highway vehicles. “But we really wanted to see this,” she said.
“This sign?” I said, baffled.
“Yes. A picture of it appeared in the AARP Magazine. They did an article on it.”
She pronounced “AARP” as a word. I had difficulty understanding what she said.
“Art Magazine?” I asked, thinking some artist or group interested in Ancestral Puebloan art had called attention to the canyon and, um, this sign.
“No, AARP,” they said. The other woman, the quieter one, spelled it. “A-A-R-P.”
“Ah, okay. A-A-R-P.”
“I just admire the group that did this,” the more talkative woman said.
Doubting she meant the BLM, the “group” that posted the sign, I said, “You mean, the group they say got the canyon closed?”
“The…. ” I tried to remember. “The Grand … uh, Great … Old … Broads for Wilderness?”
“There’re the ones!” the talkative woman said, squeaking with excitement. “I really admire them.”
So these two women were Great Old Broads for Wilderness fans—maybe members. The organization is based in Durango, Colorado but has thousands of members in numerous “Broadbands.” While the group has done admirable work and obviously cares deeply about wilderness, the GOBFW’s under-the-radar actions in this area—coming from out of town, working legal mechanisms, and quietly catalyzing Crossfire’s closure without dialogue with invested locals—touched off turmoil these two hadn’t a clue about. Nor did the women seem aware of the cloud of tragedy they’d driven through as they’d cruised into town then passed Dr. Redd’s home to reach this point on the trail.
The reasons groups give for monitoring areas and engaging in activism to protect places like Crossfire include defending natural spaces and preserving cultural resources. Indeed, wild spaces and cultural resources need protecting. But sometimes these efforts—especially when initiated by “outsiders”—produce an unfortunate backlash as defiance mounts against them. Certainly, at times it is not only necessary to regulate or stop exploitative or destructive behavior but it’s also measurably effective. The rule of law, for instance, operates on the concept—beneficial to everyone under its protection—that all public and private institutions and entities—including the government—are held accountable to a system of rules that protect and enable human rights norms. Tens of thousands of years of observation of human behavior renders self-evident the truth that in order to hang onto life, figure out liberty, and mount a pursuit for happiness, humans require protection from each other. Having that protection raises not only one’s quality of life but also increases one’s longevity—more time to enjoy that happiness, should you catch it. And if humans require protection from other humans, it is not a big leap to say that the planet requires some defending from humans, too. Hence, land protection and management acts.
However, having lived in San Juan County for almost five years, I’d become aware of painstaking, deeper work that some in these isolated communities have been doing for decades, actual heart-turning teaching that lays the foundation for voluntary and lasting change. The Edge of the Cedars Junior Archaeology Program was one such endeavor. Kids made pots, created art imitating pictograph and petroglyph patters, and learned the rules of good cultural resource stewardship.
On the other hand, the kind of lesson the GOBFWs taught the locals in their early unpublicized actions in the canyon that triggered its closure educates like pulling a rug out from under someone teaches that person a lesson. Compared to the more involved efforts others had made locally, what the GOBFWs accomplished through their activism in Crossfire came off as an assertive act, not a persuasive one.
My two new acquaintances, tourists of the Great Old Broads’ handiwork, appeared enamored with the “silver power” aspect of the project, the sword-wielding gleam it had. They seemed unaware of the depths to which these matters run and of the effects they produce in confluence with other acts. For instance, among the unintended consequences of their behind the scenes activism was that stunned locals residents, reaching blindly to figure who was responsible for the canyon’s closure, settled on me, the outsider, newly arrived on the scene. I wasn’t surprised, nor dismayed. Happens a lot.
These ladies also appeared completely unaware of the raid and Dr. Redd’s indictment and subsequent death that had been front and center in local news broadcasts for two days. I wondered what would happen if I tried displaying to these ladies modern artifacts scattered around the trail where they had come to engage in sight-seeing—signs they’d be unlikely to notice, let alone read. Not all argument over the canyon occurred in newsprint and online news story comments sections. Plenty of it was acted out on the ground in Crossfire. I turned to the BLM sign.
“As you can see, the sign has suffered some abuse. Shot four times in the back and four times in the front.” I pointed out the impressive bullet holes that, apparently, they hadn’t noticed.
The talkative woman groaned. “Why would they do that?” she asked.
“It’s language in response to the sign.”
“Do you really think that’s what it is?”
“I’m sure of it.”
“Oh, that’s just hateful,” the talkative lady said.
I led them down the trail a short distance and picked up a juniper log. Beneath it lay a carsonite BLM sign marking the point beyond which OHVs were forbidden. Part of the sign had been shot away—probably with a shotgun—then bent down and covered with the juniper log.
“This is the sign that marks the turnaround point for ATVs,” I said. “Somebody blasted the top part off then buried it with this log.”
“Those butt-wipes!” the talkative one said.
“That might depend on how you look at it. Do you know what’s happened here in the last couple of days?” I asked.
I told them of the raid and explained that one of the persons indicted for illegally obtaining, selling, and trading in Ancestral Puebloan artifacts, Dr. James Redd, had been my neighbor up the road. Federal agents pitched into Dr. Redd with language threatening the loss of life as he knew it—the suspension of his medical license, years of imprisonment that could carry the doctor well into his senior years, financial ruin, anything and everything that he most feared. The next morning, Dr. Redd drove his Jeep to a spot on his property and took his life by asphyxiation.
“Oh, that’s awful. How old was the doctor?” the talkative woman asked, visibly upset.
“Oh, that’s going too far,” she said. Whether she meant the federal agents had gone too far in intimidating Dr. Redd to the point of despair, that the doctor had gone too far in taking his own life, or something else, I couldn’t tell.
“Whatever the condition of this community has been, these events have thrown it into crisis,” I said.
This gave them pause. The quieter of the two said, “Some of these people had their collections before the Antiquites Act and other laws came into existence.”
“That’s true,” I said. The Antiquities Act had come into law in 1906, but I understood that she meant that such collections had been in local families since before then. The raid had actually been launched under the 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act, but at the moment, such specificity didn’t seem important.
“Is there even anything out here anymore?” she asked.
The question startled me. I had just walked through lots of “things” to reach this point on the trail, including artifact streams—the downhill wash of pot sherds, lithic flakes and so on from their points of origin at sites above the trail. These two visitors had walked over similar material as they’d made in their pilgrimage to the BLM sign.
“You mean artifacts?” I asked, trying to get clear on her point. She nodded.
How to answer posed some problem because it’s a more complicated question than its simple “yes or no” form supposes. The answer is, Yes. There are lots of “things” still out there. As far as the Ancestral Puebloan culture is concerned, and despite decades of pot hunting and other acts of digging and collecting, a tremendous amount remains, buried in the middens of numerous undisturbed sites as well as in many of the disturbed ones.
Crossfire teems with such sites. I knew of several located along the stretch of canyon I usually travel. Just behind these ladies was the beginning of a little side canyon hosting a spring and a few small Ancestral Puebloan structures that were built into its walls. Sites along my route through the canyon include rubble mounds, rock shelters, a tumble-down tower, small cliff dwellings, and other features usually littered on their surfaces with telltale sherds and lithic scatters—imprinted, painted, or fractured bits and pieces providing record of an ancient civilization’s cultural qualities, trade ties, and technological developments to those dedicated to learning how to read them. Fallen, hand-pecked rocks and depressions marking kivas also occupy the canyon. Many of these sites hold tight in their middens and the unexcavated ground around them inestimable quantities of significant artifacts. Many “things” have been left elsewhere, such as in natural rock chambers and cracks in canyon walls. To regional archaeologists, who traditionally leave portions of the sites they excavate untouched, these “things”, and the information they preserve, abound in the area.
But what did these ladies want to know? They had hiked into the canyon with ideas, their own stories and other peoples’ stories, about ancient and modern inhabitants of the area, stories that they apparently valued and that were likely wired into stories having for them even greater importance.
“Things are tucked away here and there,” I said. If they asked more, I’d answer with more. I half hoped they would.
But the quiet woman said, “They say it’s a squeezed orange.”
That was a stunner, a bolt from the blue. I struggled to wrap my mind around the words. “That the artifact content of the area is a squeezed orange?” I asked, trying to get clear on what she meant.
They nodded. “That’s what some archaeologist said.”
The image flashed across my mind: half a ripe orange, a husk of a fraction of a whole, crumpled, drained, dropped. More scandalous, heightened rhetoric, a sound bite, a mind’s-eye-catching artifact of somebody’s more deeply buried intentions. It’s true that much has been lost, but it’s also true that much remains. I didn’t respond, just stood there, thunderstruck at these words, at the profoundness of their mistaken perspective, and at the assertion that “some archaeologist” had uttered them.
By now the no-see-ums had gathered and the two ladies were swatting the air and spritzing themselves and each other with repellant. I leaned against the rock protrusion behind me, arms crossed at the wrists. The gnats swarmed me, too, but experience had shown that it would take a few minutes for them to work into position and bite, and I guessed that our conversation was coming to an end.
“Well, we’re going to move on on account of the bugs,” the talkative woman said. “Thank you, Dearie!”
“You’re welcome,” I said, turning in the opposite direction to head home. But on the way, I took a slight detour, found their car, and checked the license plate. Colorado.
To read Part II, go here.