Yes. Yes! In San Juan County, during my field school years in the mid-80s, I saw shocking pot hunting damage firsthand, sites hit very badly. I’m haunted by memories of human skulls and other remains churned up and tossed aside—men, women, children, including a child’s mummified foot—remains meaningful to diggers only as signs that grave good such as pots, jewelry, or other marketable artifacts might lie nearby. The exposed human remains don’t trouble me so much for their grim “to this we must all come” reminders, though there’s always something show-stopping about coming upon human bones. Nor do they impress me for the disturbing evidence they offer of the pot hunters’ disregard for law. To me, what’s telling is the pot hunters’ complete reduction of a culture and its members to “the good stuff”, the shrinking of life and its cultural contexts to mere “things” having market value.
In reducing the ruins of this prehistoric civilization to mere exploitable resource, pot hunters and other kinds of dedicated collectors reduce themselves to a role like that of predator in a predator-prey relationship. Such a mind sees the other culture, animal, mineral, stretch of land, person—whatever form an object of interest takes—as existing mainly to service his/her hunger for an advantage they wish to gain or passion they seek to gratify. In the case of pot hunters, their connections to the culture they mine thus damaged, they cannot imagine the importance of these “things”, not only to sciences constructing the human narrative in general and the Anasazi branch of it in particular but also to the identities of descended cultures not so far south of San Juan County, the Puebloan cultures of New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, and Mexico to whom the Anasazi gave rise. These modern peoples consider their roots in this area—what we call “cultural resources”—sacred. Pot hunters fail to see connective tissue between the past’s ruins and the living present that these “things” signify.
Beyond this, collectors and traffickers in illegally obtained artifacts can’t feel the havoc they wreak upon their own psyches and, by extension, their cultural surrounds, because really, when it comes down to it, in our communities we act in concert with or in reaction to one another. What we do will affect others, sometimes so far down the road that our behavior comes to fruition beyond the horizon of our line of sight.
Furthermore, many of the acts an individual engages in on the self-seeking “It’s my life, I can do with it what I please” principle misdirects the language of freedom. The entelechy of freedom—the vital force of true liberation—arises not in being able to do whatever one wants to do but in being able to do better than one does, alone or in company with other like-minded people, sometimes in company with differently-minded ones.
In being so quick to call the locals “hateful” and “butt wipes,” the more talkative of the two women similarly reduced a culture to an exploitable resource, in this case getting her digs in to furnish her own tightly-held beliefs. One of the reasons the “squeezed/sucked orange” image has endured seems to be because it has become a rallying cry, even as it has been misapprehended and misquoted. As Winston Hurst said that night in 2018, Kidder’s Sucked Orange Concept has become a popular word-framing for common characterizations of San Juan County, Utah residents as rapacious “red-necked” (Winston’s word) pot hunters. Just as the area’s isolated Anasazi ruins make easy targets for pot hunters, the people of southeastern Utah have become an easy target for rhetorical exploitation and ideological artifact collecting.
Amy Irvine’s Trespass (2008), the bulk of which takes place in southeastern Utah, is nearly cover-to-cover cultural artifact collecting and glassed-in display, as was the GOBFW’s newsletter when they touted their success in reserving Crossfire for what they called “quiet users”, the implication being that those who rode motorized vehicles in the canyon were not only loud, but because of that loudness, they had no right to be there. Some residents who are targets of this sort of rhetoric respond in kind, and often worse. The overall effect is one of escalating conflict.
If exploitation of a culture’s revered physical remains is wrong, whether it be for monetary gain, to enhance one’s sense of entitlement, to advance oneself socially or professionally, or just to make a point, we should perhaps raise similar alarms over exploitation’s effects on a culture’s worldly linguistic goods, even where those goods might not be of sterling quality. Given the amount of digging language focused on this region there would seem to have been enough tossing of skeletons and upending of lives, present and past, in and around San Juan County, to go around, including from out-of-area crusaders who visit higher truth upon the heathens. Upend a culture to teach it not to upend another culture, and the act becomes more about the upending and much less about the teaching. When that happens, the old hobgoblin “revenge” is much more likely to appear on the scene to direct the traffic.
To find the better way, find better language. Creative, proactive, listening language opens frontiers, shoulders the necessary work of building bridges, and produces an array of possibilities from which others might choose. It is patient; it understands that language operates in a kind of time warp as ideas travel distances and alter conditions, including conditions in the past thought done and over with. It can wait, when necessary, for response. It can also affect the nature of the future. It maps the unexplored terrain of actual relation. The most effectual language—what Taylor calls constitutive language—gets us across.
We have the extraordinary syntactical technology of the question and words to form one when need arises. Let’s bring this clever invention in now to stage an inquiry into our behavior in the linguistic realm.
Can we justify taking words a person has spoken or written in one context and forcing them into a foreign context, either as an act of “misapprehending”, or simply because we are struck by them and feel an impulse to pick them up and shape them into meaning a bit more to our own purpose? If someone has left wordage behind they themselves can no longer make use of themselves—because they’re dead or otherwise not around to complain—isn’t it “finders keepers” and therefore ethically defensible to take that person’s words and showcase them in an arrangement conveying concepts exactly opposite the words’ original meaning? Do we bear any responsibility at all to seek to approach someone’s actual meaning and engage them on the grounds of that meaning, or are words in open venues or in historic compositions just “things”, linguistic artifacts we can pick up and do with what we want, to the point of imposing on them our own narrative take, including use that would be against their will, if they had one?
Is it in any way an act of imposition for me to assert, “Don’t tell me what you meant. I know what you meant, and it’s this”, when you really don’t mean what I say you mean at all? Since words are only things, insubstantial things, weightless, colorless things we do other things with, and they’re just lying around everywhere right out in the open, what’s the harm in my taking possession of them, making them my words, to do with as I please, including treat them carelessly or arbitrarily? Is learning how to listen to others’ words, engaging in a back-and-forth movement toward meaning that may require doing some homework, in any way at all advantageous to our continued survival, even our thriving, on this planet? Finally, while rule of law restricts the arbitrary exercise of power in every other aspect of our social behavior, but not the arbitrary exercise of power in our spoken or written conduct, doesn’t that mean the linguistic dimension of our lives remains a virtual (or actual) free-for-all?
As for the FBI and BLM code-naming their joint investigation and subsequent raid “Cerberus”: the agencies involved no doubt took the name because they sought to brand their operation as somehow powerful and justified. After all, Cerberus’s job—the absolute of his raison d’etre—was to prevent the living from illegitimately entering the realm of the dead.
However, some context for the Cerberus myth. Ovid tells us that the triple-headed hound of hell’s saliva was venomous. When Hercules dragged him up from the underworld in process of completing one of his labors, Cerberus in a foaming fury drizzled the area with spittle. According to the myth, this venomous spittle engendered the growth of aconite, a plant of deadly toxicity. The witch Medea, who eventually killed her own children, used this plant’s poison to try to murder Theseus, her husband Aegeus’ son.
During the fallout from Operation Cerberus, people did die—three men, including Dr. Redd, all by their own hands. Others suffered in less severe ways. Meanwhile, dozens of spectators permitted themselves the luxury of downplaying those lamentable results of the raid, saying everyone swept up in the net was a grave robber and deserved what they got. It was justice. Rather like coyotes deserve to die because they’re coyotes. Rather like prairie dogs deserve to die because they’re prairie dogs.
Finally, let’s return to the article titled “Cultural Sensitivity, Science and Ethical Imperatives: Contemporary Archaeology in the Southwestern United States”. The quoted passage calls for archaeologists to question whether “as scholars of a past not our own if these fashionable ideas are ways of deriving realistic interpretations of the past or if they are ways to make a living in an expanding discipline that is tightly controlled by legislation”. Even as it grossly misinterprets Kidder’s original 1958 statement.
In just a couple sentences, Rigg’s words arrange themselves into an ironic hall of cracked mirrors. Are such distortions inevitable, the “way it is”, because language is by nature mercurial and unreliable, a toolbox whose tools at times break and fail, and, as a result, and much to our frustration, the words simply escape us?