by Terry Burton, Digital Media Coordinator
We’ve written several times in this blog about artifact looting, most recently in regards to the June raid and arrests made by Federal agents in Blanding, Utah. That story in particular has sparked a lot of interest and emotion, especially here in the West.
People who illegally collect artifacts from public lands offer a variety of justifications, many of which are being used by the folks who were caught in the Blanding sting: it’s a time-honored community tradition; the artifacts will just end up in a box in some archaeologist’s lab, so why not pick them up; we’re just doing what everyone else does. Whatever the justification, the fact still remains that it is a crime to remove artifacts from public land.
Removing artifacts also destroys much of what those artifacts can tell us, scientifically. Without context — where an object was found, what was found with it and around it — all we’re left with are disconnected fragments. Archaeologists and museum professionals have weighed in on this subject in regards to the Blanding cases and artifact looting in general.
But there’s a third consideration that received scant, if any, ink in the Blanding saga, and that’s the voice of the people who are the cultural and spiritual heirs of these artifacts. And while there’s no such thing as a “pan-Indian” perspective or opinion on how to treat artifacts, there are those who believe that these objects retain a spiritual quality that goes beyond antiquities laws and scientific processes. From this point of view, the question of what to do with an artifact has a simple answer: Don’t pick it up. It doesn’t belong to you.
Last year, the Fort Collins Museum began a film project to document Native American elders speaking on this topic. The resulting film, “Meeting in the Center with Respect,” debuted in May 2009 as part of the opening of the Soapstone Prairie Natural Area, a place that’s also home to artifacts ranging from 12,000 years old to those of the historic era. It’s an opportunity to hear an often unheard voice and to get a different perspective on what meaning objects have, and how their connections survive across time, space, and cultural disruption.
The situation in southeastern Utah only highlights how much education still needs to be done to help all of us understand the ethical responsibility we have to protect, respect, and conserve ancestral sites and artifacts.