Utah's U.S. senators, Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, want an investigation into the actions of the federal agents who recently arrested two dozen people in the Four Corners. Residents of southeastern Utah are similarly irate about the raid, comparing federal agents to the Nazi Gestapo, and say the government has far better things to do with limited taxpayer resources.
The individuals are accused in federal indictments of stealing, receiving or trying to sell Ancestral Puebloan artifacts stolen from public and tribal lands. One of the individuals indicted, a Blanding physician, reportedly took his own life. That death indeed is a tragedy.
But so is the looting. Artifacts removed from their context are disconnected from the stories they have to tell. Furthermore, they do not belong to the people who profit from their sale. Although those people may argue that anything found on public lands is theirs for the taking, that is not true legally and certainly is questionable ethically, as well.
"Collecting" artifacts from archaeological sites on public lands is nothing new. It has been a common hobby and a lucrative business in this part of the country for more than a century, and for far longer in such places as Egypt, Greece and Italy.
The thefts are motivated by at least two factors. Because legally collected artifacts and antiquities are in short supply, illegally acquired pieces command high prices. In building the current cases, a total of $335,685 was spent on undercover purchases. Not to be discounted, though, is the thrill of finding an object untouched by another person for hundreds of years. Despite strict laws prohibiting such behavior, countless people, both locals and visitors, pilfer artifacts from area ruins, and many never sell a single one.
There is no denying that it is hard to catch someone in the act of looting. The public lands of the Four Corners are vast, and the number of people responsible for patrolling them is extremely small in comparison. Those law-enforcement officials also are smart and have some sophisticated techniques at their disposal, so not every looter gets away with the goods, but many do and always will. That means, then, that if they are caught at all, they are most at risk of arrest either at the point of sale or when somebody else talks.
A single arrest can cause an entire community to hunker down, which is one reason federal agents prefer to hold off on arrests until they can round up a larger group of suspected looters and traffickers. The same names turn up repeatedly in arrests and prosecutions over recent years, and several of those listed in the indictment are related to one another.
While those indicted no doubt will be portrayed by their defense attorneys as nice people who have been wrongfully accused, making an arrest never is 100 percent fail-safe.
The death of James Redd is a bitter loss to his family and his community, and it certainly was not the goal of the federal agents responsible for the raid. Stealing artifacts from public lands is not a capital crime.
Still, enforcement of laws protecting archaeological resources on public lands is justified. Anyone who wants to challenge the laws against collecting artifacts and desecrating graves on federal and tribal lands is welcome to do so in court. But they cannot simply ignore the laws, and the Bureau of Land Management and the Federal Bureau of Investigation cannot simply ignore such widespread violations.