By Christopher Smart
"Everybody in Blanding is outraged," said 69-year-old Joy Holliday. "Why aren't they out stopping things that hurt people."
The undercover operation--which took two years and recovered more than 250 American Indian artifacts allegedly swiped from federal and tribal lands--yielded federal indictments against 24 people, most of whom are from Blanding.
In the Four Corners area, pre-Columbian ruins, potsherds, arrowheads and other relics are nothing out of the ordinary. Thousands of sites dot the landscape around Blanding.
"You can't walk two miles in any direction without running into an Anasazi site," Holliday said. "In San Juan County, [collecting relics] is a hobby for many people."
By Aaron Falk
Stumbling across pieces of pots and arrowheads is commonplace, locals say.
So, too, is keeping them.
With the federal indictment of 24 people, most of them from Blanding, accused of taking ancient American Indian artifacts from public lands in the Four Corners area, people here say officials have made much ado about nothing.
"A majority of homes probably do have artifacts," said Holly Shumway, whose in-laws were among those indicted. "I don't know how they pick and choose the few that got arrested. It's just so common in this town to have things like that. It's not like just those 24 people have been doing this. These people have just been doing what everyone does."
Mitch Barnett, a Blanding resident, recalls his grandfather receiving Anasazi blankets as pay for work he did. "Nobody thought it was a big deal," he said.
Sandy Strom, whose husband, Aubry Patterson, is accused of stealing artifacts from caves in the La Sal Mountains and selling them to an undercover dealer, said she has a display case full of American Indian artifacts.
Otherwise, they would just be on the ground, she said.
"We weren't out grave-robbing," Strom said outside a Moab courthouse.
It's a sentiment shared among a number of people in the area.
"That's the word I just can't stand: stealing," Shumway said. "Anyone can walk out their back door and probably find something. Most of the houses in this town are built on old Indian ruins. It's everywhere. It's not like these people are going into someone's home or a museum and taking these artifacts. They're just outside on the ground."
But items taken from federal land could mean up to 10 years in prison for the "collectors."
The crime is not about property being destroyed, said Blanding archaeologist Winston Hurst, it's about preserving a priceless record of history.
"It's not about who gets to own something," Hurst said. "It's about the archaeological record. It's the only record we have of the huge majority of people who have ever lived. It's tremendously fragile, and it's being looted on a worldwide scale. They rip the guts out and leave us with nothing but objects to sell on eBay."
Whether it's pocketing an arrowhead or pillaging a ruin, "the net effect is, it all destroys evidence," said the Bureau of Land Management's Canyon Country district manager Shelley Smith.
"It's not like these people are going into someone's home"? Blanding's people are living on Indian land and going into Indian homes. They're taking artifacts that belong to Indian people or the American people as a whole.
So the looters don't think taking Indian artifacts is a big deal? Try walking into a Smithsonian museum and taking some old Euro-American artifacts. Let us know how it goes.
While you're at it, try lifting the Declaration of Independence from the National Archives or the Liberty Bell from Independence Hall? Why not, since they're only a piece of paper and a hunk of metal? They don't have any intrinsic value.
Oh, you say those are different? Why...because white men created them? That's kind of the point, isn't it? White men say everything they do is important while everything anyone else does is unimportant.
And spare us the sob stories about the crybabies didn't know they were violating the law. The media has reported often on the looting of Indian artifacts. As usual, ignorance of the law is no excuse.
Besides, these people obviously aren't sorry for what they've done. They're fudging the difference between artifacts taken 50 years ago and artifacts taken recently. Between artifacts taken from private land and artifacts taken from public land. That they're trying to obscure the facts suggests that they know they're guilty.
I wouldn't be surprised if most of these people are conservatives and Mormons. No doubt they bray about the "rule of law" whenever some minority gets thrown into jail for a minor offense. Meanwhile, they're cheating on their taxes, dumping pollutants into the water, and stealing Indian artifacts.
For more on the subject, see America's Exceptional Values.
Below: A worthless old scrap of paper. Useful for lining a birdcage if you find it on the ground.