The recent flap about arrests of suspected looters of archaeological sites highlights an unfortunate circumstance whereby some elected officials don't take seriously the crime of destroying our cultural heritage.
Utah's two senators offered another case study last week in this dismissive attitude toward pot-hunting and grave-robbing, castigating the law- enforcement officials who undertook a difficult two-year investigation rather than bemoaning a culture that accepts looting cultural resources for profit.
On June 10, federal agents arrested 23 people around the Four Corners on charges of illegally collecting archaeological artifacts and operating a lively business buying and selling these items. Some of the items include burial objects, meaning the alleged thieves are accused of pillaging graves in their hunt for marketable booty.
What differentiates looting 1,000-year-old graves from more recent ones? Defenders of these alleged archaeological looters express dismay at characterizing their activities as grave-robbing. Yet, it's hard to imagine society and politicians defending collectors digging up 1,000-year-old graves in the cemeteries of European cathedrals to paw through them for gold, silver and gems. I doubt Utah's senators would be as understanding if folks smashed through coffins across southern Utah, grabbing wedding bands, snatching jewelry and prying gold fillings to sell.
Why do some have so little regard for the burial rituals of other cultures and view those graves simply as treasure troves? Perhaps because there are no current, directly related living relatives to object. Is there an historical cutoff? Would it be okay to head up to Greenmount Cemetery in Durango and dig up graves from 100 or 130 years ago as long as no relatives were around to object? Or is it a cultural disdain for the ancestral Puebloan people who once lived here that makes it okay to pillage their grave sites and loot the bodies?
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is committed to enforcing our nation's cultural resource laws. Looting graves and other archaeological sites robs all Americans of our cultural heritage for the benefit of a greedy few individuals.
Utah's senators should express more respect for law and order. They were silent a few weeks back when local Utah officials orchestrated an illegal motorized invasion of the Paria River near Kanab, Utah. In that instance, a county commissioner and Utah state legislator organized several hundred motorized vehicles to rampage up a riverbed in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in open defiance of restrictions imposed by the Bureau of Land Management to protect public resources. What kind of message does it send when senators ignore blatant exhibitions of illegal resource destruction such as the Paria River episode, and furthermore castigate law enforcement officials when they do enforce our laws against archaeological looters?
If you agree with the value of preserving our cultural
heritage, send a note of thanks to Salazar at
Mark Pearson is director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.