NOTE: This is the story I wrote for the August/September 2009 issue of The Zephyr, following the raid on Blanding homes by BLM law enforcement the previous June…JS
It’s an early morning in June 2009….Blanding, Utah.
Suddenly, more than a hundred federal agents, carrying search warrants and dressed for combat, enter dozens of homes, in some cases with weapons drawn, in search of illegally obtained Native American artifacts. Almost two dozen Blandingites are arrested. One is the town’s most prominent doctor, James Redd and his wife Jeanne. Another is Harold Lyman, 78, recently inducted into the Utah Tourist “Hall of Fame.” He runs the local tourist visitor center.
Antiquities on federal lands are protected by law; since 1979, collecting them has been a felony. But old habits are hard to break—for many residents of San Juan County, it’s an illegal hobby that’s been passed along for generations and for a handful of “Moki Poachers,” it’s a business. Either way, it’s wrong, but motives do count for something and that has been a problem, not just for the media covering the story, but for all of us who have an opinion.
For some of the arrested, digging artifacts is nothing more than a money-maker, whether to supplement a regular job or as a primary way of generating income. For a few it’s quick cash to support a drug business. For others, however, it is almost an act of defiance—an expression of disdain for the federal government. If you live in metropolitan America, and most of you do, it is almost impossible to convey the cultural chasm that exists between some rural westerners and the federal government. One would have to go back in time half a century, to the Deep South in the 1950s and the civil rights movement, to find a hatred as intense.
This conflict turned to tragedy a day after the arrests when Dr. Redd committed suicide (later a second man, arrested in Santa fe on similar charges, took his own life).
The residents of Blanding were stunned and grief-stricken and furious. They placed Redd’s death squarely on the shoulders of those responsible for his arrest. Even Native Americans came to Dr. Redd’s defense. In a Salt Lake Tribune story by Chris Smart, former San Juan County commissioner and member of the Navajo Tribal Council, Mark Maryboy, expressed regret and anger.
“I’m very sad. Dr. Redd was a good friend of mine,” Maryboy said. “Dr. Redd was one of a kind; he was good to everyone.” According to Smart, the Navajo leader called the federal authorities “heavy handed.”
“The federal government has a responsibility to protect antiquities,” Maryboy said. “But they have a responsibility to protect people, too. Anytime somebody loses his or her life, like Dr. Redd, it’s gone too far.”
The fury that followed Dr. Redd’s death was so intense that, for a while, federal agencies in San Juan County banned their employees from driving government vehicles alone through Blanding and forbade them from stopping and getting out of their vehicles altogether.
Some of the rhetoric, from both sides of the antiquities debate was unspeakable in its cruelty. Blog comments were especially vicious; one friend dismissed them because they were offered anonymously, and that’s true—people will say anything if they’re not held accountable for their words. But the words were spoken, just the same. It simply reveals the ugliness that hovers beneath the surface in so many of us.
There were threats of retaliation against the federal government for their heavy-handed tactics and cold-blooded observations from others who felt the arrested, even Dr. Redd, got what they deserved. The ugliness everywhere was overwhelming.
If I can just make some personal observations, not as a journalist/small-time pundit, but as a human being…
First, taking artifacts is wrong and it cannot be condoned. For those arrested who were trying to make a career out of pot hunting, or to support a drug business or habit, they now suffer the consequences. For those who kept up the “hobby” out of sheer defiance, though they clearly did NOT need the money from their sale, I can only ask, ‘Why? What was the point?’
For those who hold the federal government accountable for Dr. Redd’s death, I can speak from personal experience, I regret to say. I have lost many friends to suicide and I have stared down the barrel myself. The early morning arrests may have been the proverbial straw that brought him down, but there had to be much more on the doctor’s plate than most of us know. Nor do we have the right to know. It is a personal matter that should not be idly speculated upon or marginalized by gossip-mongers. His family and friends deserve compassion and understanding even from those who felt the arrests were justified. To do anything less reflects a lack of humanity in all of us.
Among those cheering the enforcement of the antiquities laws are thousands of one-time pot hunters, tourists mostly, but also the “progressive/enviro” locals who, over the last few decades, have picked up just one or two artifacts and put them on their bedroom dresser. Just as a memento… hardly like the Moki Poachers of Blanding, they convince themselves. But take one shard, multiply that innocent gesture a million times, and it’s why canyons once covered with pot shards and points are now bare. The San Juan County people aren’t responsible—the rest of us, hypocrites all— are.
Finally, my dear friend Ken Sleight may have identified the ultimate hypocrisy. He notes:
“Here’s the federal government arresting all these people, for their collections of arrowheads and pots, but do you know who is the biggest vandal and destroyer of Anasazi artifacts that ever lived? It’s the U.S. government who approved the construction of Glen Canyon Dam. Lake Powell destroyed more precious artifacts and rock art than all the people in Blanding could ruin in a thousand lifetimes. How come nobody’s arrested the Bureau of Reclamation for high crimes? I’m still waiting.”
Jim Stiles is Founder and Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.