Rock Art In The News

Eerie Figures With Giant Heads Found Painted in a Rock Shelter in Tanzania

by Michelle Starr
29 June 2022
Science Alert

The figures painted on rock. M. Grzelczyk, Antiquity, 2021

In 2018, archaeologists made a staggering discovery in Swaga Swaga Game Reserve in central Tanzania: 52 previously undocumented rock shelters, deliberately painted with rock art. Weathering had mostly destroyed all but a handful; but of those that were preserved, one was an absolute enigma.

The site, named Amak’hee 4, was elaborately painted with a frieze of figurative art – including three mysterious, anthropomorphic figures with extremely oversized heads.

These could be, according to archaeologist Maciej Grzelczyk of the Jagiellonian University in Poland, a clue to figuring out what other, similar trios of figures found in other rock art panels might be.

The Amak’hee 4 panel is difficult to date, but in 2021 Grzelczyk was able to gauge that it’s at least a few hundred years old. It’s painted almost entirely in red pigment, except for five figures in white.

The weathering on this pigment, and the absence of domestic animals, suggests that it’s fairly old, dating back to the time of hunter-gatherer societies in the region.

A diagram of the artwork. M. Grzelczyk, Antiquity, 2021

Depicted on the panel are animals that appear to resemble wildebeest, elands, buffalo, and even a giraffe, as well as a smattering of human-like figures with large heads. But one group stands out.

“Particularly noteworthy among the Amak’hee 4 paintings is a scene that centers around three images,” Grzelczyk wrote in his 2021 paper.

“In this trio, the figures seem to feature stylized buffalo heads. These shapes recall the central dip in the profile of the buffalo head from where the two horns rise and then curve outward away from the head, as well as the downturned ears.”

The similarities to buffalo heads. M. Grzelczyk, Antiquity, 2021

The culture of the Sandawe people, who are descended from those who used to inhabit the region, does not include motifs of buffalo-headed people or people who can shape-shift into buffaloes (or vice versa), so the images may depict something else. But, Grzelczyk notes, buffalo horns do play a significant role in some Sandawe rituals.

Whatever they may be, the strange figures are not without precedent. Not far from Amak’hee 4, in the Kondoa region in central Tanzania, two rock shelter paintings in particular bear a strong resemblance to the trio.

At the site Kolo B2, three figures are depicted standing together. At Kolo B1, three figures are depicted horizontally, although laying on the ground.

All three sites show similar figures, with large heads, although the Kolo figures sport a striped motif, interpreted as a headdress. (Other Kondoa figures are interpreted as having elaborate hairstyles.)

In all three sites, the figures are connected by a line across their midsection. And all three have similar arrangements and directions of the hands and arms.

Amak’hee 4 does have some important differences. The heads seem to be filled in with solid color, and they seem much more important to the action around them.

“The figures from Amak’hee 4 are noticeably bigger than those at Kolo, and make this main motif a central focal point around which the rest of the narrative seems to take place. In contrast, the images at Kolo are isolated depictions, with no clear connection to the rest of the paintings,” Grzelczyk wrote.

At Kondoa, some of the rock art sites are still in use by the Sandawe for a variety of ritual activities. The newly documented sites are also known to local communities, so it’s possible that they could shed some light on what the mysterious figures mean.

Meanwhile, archaeologists will continue the work of documenting the sites so that they can be added to the published record.

The paper has been published in Antiquity.

A version of this article was first published in February 2021.

Largest known cave art images in US by Indigenous Americans discovered in Alabama

by Callum McKelvie
3 May 2022
Live Science

Archaeologists in Alabama have discovered the longest known painting created by early Indigenous Americans, a new study finds. Indigenous Americans crafted this 1,000-year-old record-breaking image — of a 10-foot-long (3 meters) rattlesnake — as well as other paintings, out of mud on the walls and ceiling of a cave, likely to depict spirits of the underworld, the researchers said.

The cave has hundreds of cave paintings and is considered the richest place for Native American cave art in the American Southeast, the researchers said. To investigate its historic art, the team turned to photogrammetry, a technique that involves taking hundreds of digital images in order to build a virtual 3D model. Using this method, the researchers spotted five previously unknown giant cave paintings, known as glyphs.

“This methodology allows us to create a virtual model of the space that we can manipulate,” study first author Jan Simek, a distinguished professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee, told Live Science. “In this particular case, the ceiling of the cave is very close to the floor. So your field of vision is limited by your proximity to the ceiling. We never saw these very large images because we couldn’t get back far enough to see them.”

After creating the virtual model, “we could look at it from a greater perspective,” he said. “It allows us to see things in a way that we can’t in person.”

Image credits: photograph by S. Alvarez; illustration by J. Simek; Antiquity Publications Ltd

The record-setting glyph sports a diamond pattern, indicating that it may depict a diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox), a creature considered sacred by the Indigenous peoples of the American southeast, the researchers said. These peoples constructed large earthen mounds, used for a variety of purposes, including rituals according to Smithsonian Magazine, and to be closer to the spirits of the upper world, while caves were viewed as the opposite — routes to the underworld. 

“These are special because until now, we have had no large figures from this area,” Simek said “And so that changes our perspective on what might be in these caves.” For instance, there are similarly large rock art images made by Indigenous peoples in the western United States, although these glyphs are not found in caves, he said.  “It brings the cave art of the southeast into the discussion of other monumental images that we see in different parts of North America,” Simek noted.

This cave was first discovered in 1998 and remains unnamed, going by the moniker “19th unnamed cave” in order to protect the discoveries. The cave contains over 3 miles (5 kilometers) of underground passages with the majority of paintings discovered in one large chamber, according to a 1999 study published in the journal Southeastern Archaeology. In continuing to use photogrammetry techniques on the 19th unnamed cave and others, the team hopes to further improve understanding of Indigenous American art. 

The study will be published online Wednesday (May 4) in the journal Antiquity

“Ice Age” Horse Not What We Thought

The skeletal remains of a horse unearthed in Utah thought to date to the last ice age are actually much younger.

Unknown symbols written by the lost ‘painted people’ of Scotland unearthed

by Laura Geggel
22 March 2022
Live Science

The geometric Pictish carvings on this stone date to the fifth or sixth centuries A.D. (Image credit: University of Aberdeen )

Archaeologists in Scotland shed “genuine tears” upon discovering a stone covered with geometric carvings that the Picts, the Indigenous people of the region, designed about 1,500 years ago.

The team unexpectedly found the 5.5-foot-long (1.7 meters) carved stone while doing a geophysical survey in Aberlemno, a village with Pictish roots. The stone has several geometric shapes showing abstract Pictish symbols, such as triple ovals, a comb and mirror, a crescent and double discs. Some of the carved symbols overlap, suggesting that they were carved in different time periods, the researchers said.

It’s unclear what all of the symbols mean, but the “best guess is that they are a naming system representing Pictish names,” Gordon Noble, excavation leader and a professor of archaeology at the University of Aberdeen, told Live Science in an email.

“It’s the find of a lifetime, genuinely,” James O’Driscoll, an archaeologist at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland who helped excavate the stone, said in a university video.

Excavation leader Gordon Noble works at the site. (Image credit: University of Aberdeen)

The Picts — possibly named after the Latin word for painted, or “picti,” — were fierce people who lived in ancient and medieval times in parts of what is now Scotland. They are partly the reason why the Roman Empire never conquered Scotland.

The new finding is one of only about 200 such stones known to archaeologists. Other stones with Pictish symbols are also from Aberlemno, which is known for its unique standing stones, including a slab that may depict scenes from the Battle of Nechtansmere, a Pictish victory over the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria in 685 A.D. that is tied to the creation of what would become Scotland.

The discovery happened in early 2020, when archaeologists were surveying the area as a part of the Comparative Kingship project, a five-year investigation into the early medieval kingdoms of northern Britain and Ireland. While moving imaging equipment across the grass, the team noticed anomalies suggesting that the remains of a settlement lay underground.

To learn more, the archaeologists dug a small pit to see what was hidden beneath their feet. To their astonishment, they found the carved Pictish stone. “I just brushed my hand, and there was a symbol,”  Zack Hinckley, an archaeologist at the University of Aberdeen who took part in the excavation, said in the video. “And we had a freakout.”

The team hoped to immediately excavate and study the stone, but COVID-19 lockdowns meant they had to put their plans on hold. Finally, after months of waiting, they were able to remove and examine the stone, dating the carvings to the fifth or sixth century A.D.

It’s rare to find carved Pictish stones. “They are occasionally dug up by farmers ploughing fields or during the course of road building, but by the time we get to analyse them, much of what surrounds them has already been disturbed,” Noble said in a statement.

“To come across something like this while digging one small test pit is absolutely remarkable, and none of us could quite believe our luck,” Noble added. Because they found the rock undisturbed in the ground, they were able to “examine and date the layers underneath it and extract much more detailed information without losing vital evidence,” he said.

The slab was later repurposed as a paver in a building dating to the 11th or 12th century, according to radiocarbon dating, and placed next to other pavers, including some with Bronze Age rock art. The building “dates to after the Pictish period — in the era of the Kingdom of Alba, the forerunner of medieval Scotland,” Noble told Live Science.

The stone is now in the Graciela Ainsworth conservation lab in Edinburgh, where scientists plan to investigate the artifact further.

Controversial rock art may depict extinct giants of the ice age

by Katie Hunt
7 March 2022


CNN – More than 12,000 years ago, South America was teeming with an astonishing array of ice age beasts – giant ground sloths the size of a car, elephantine herbivores and a deerlike animal with an elongated snout.

These extinct giants are among many animals immortalized in an 8-mile-long (13-kilometer-long) frieze of rock paintings at Serranía de la Lindosa in the Colombian Amazon rainforest – art created by some of the earliest humans to live in the region, according to a new study.

“(The paintings) have the whole diversity of Amazonia. Turtles and fishes to jaguars, monkeys and porcupines,” said study author Jose Iriarte, a professor in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.

Iriate calls the frieze, which likely would have been painted over centuries, if not millennia, “the last journey,” as he said it represents the arrival of humans in South America – the last region to be colonized by Homo sapiens as they spread around the world from Africa, their place of origin. These pioneers from the north would have faced unknown animals in an unfamiliar landscape.

“They encountered these large-bodied mammals and they likely painted them. And while we don’t have the last word, these paintings are very naturalistic and we’re able to see morphological features of the animals,” he said.

But the discovery of what scientists term “extinct megafauna” among the dazzlingly detailed paintings is controversial and contested.

Other archaeologists say the exceptional preservation of the paintings suggest a much more recent origin and that there are other plausible candidates for the creatures depicted. For example, the giant ground sloth identified by Iriarte and his colleagues could in fact be a capybara – a giant rodent common today across the region.

Final word?

While Iriarte concedes the new study is not the final word in this debate, he is confident that they have found evidence of early human encounters with some of the vanished giants of the past.

The team identified five such animals in the paper: a giant ground sloth with massive claws, a gomphothere (an elephantlike creature with a domed head, flared ears and a trunk), an extinct lineage of horse with a thick neck, a camelid like a camel or llama, and a three-toed ungulate, or hoofed mammal, with a trunk.

He said they are well known from fossilized skeletons, enabling paleontologists to reconstruct what they must have looked like. Iriarte and his colleagues were then able to identify their defining features in the paintings.

While the red pigments use to make the rock art have not yet been directly dated, Iriarte said that ocher fragments found in layers of sediment during excavations of the ground beneath the painted vertical rock faces dated to 12,600 years ago.

The hope is to directly date the red pigment used to paint the miles of rock, but dating rock art and cave paintings is notoriously tricky. Ocher, an inorganic mineral pigment that contains no carbon, can’t be dated using radiocarbon dating techniques. The archaeologists are hoping the ancient artists mixed the ocher with some kind of binding agent that will allow them to get an accurate date. The results of this investigation are expected possibly later this year.

Further study of the paintings could shed light on why these giant animals went extinct. Iriarte said no bones of the extinct creatures were found during archaeological digs in the immediate area – suggesting perhaps they weren’t a source of food for the people who created the art.

The research published in the journal Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society B on Monday.

America’s oldest cave art discovered in Tennessee dates back 6,000 years

by Alex Denis
3 February 2022

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Tennesseans have been fascinated by caves for centuries. And long before that, when Native Americans inhabited the rolling landscape, they too traversed the deep dark rock masses leaving meaningful messages uncovered thousands of years later.

“There are these hidden treasures and gems everywhere,” said Jan Simek who has a long list of accolades to his name, including Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee.

He’s also the man who led the team that uncovered hundreds of images of prehistoric cave art. “Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky in particular, but Georgia as well, is one of the richest areas for caves anywhere in North America,” Simek said.

Nestled in these undisclosed locations are images both carved and painted on rock walls miles inground. “We’ve been in thousands, in order to find the few hundred,” explained Simek.

One, in particular, discovered within the Cumberland Plateau which cuts across Tennessee between Chattanooga and Nashville was drawn 6,000 years ago – the oldest to date in North America.

“6,000 years ago, people were hunting and gathering. They were fishing. They were highly mobile,” said Sarah Sherwood, a Professor of Archaeology at the University of the South at Sewanee, who’s part of Simek’s team.

She explained the reaction to cave art is still the same. “There are lots of oohs that go on among all of us when you first see it. It’s just so exciting.”

Also along the treacherous trails are artifacts of those who traveled before. “We see the cane river torches that people used scattered all over the place, gourds that they used to pick things up with, basketry,” Simek said.

Images of animals, figures, and symbols meant to record tribal events and spiritual transformations.

“Red is the color of life of birth, black is the color of death. And so it sets off the relationship between what we find in caves, which is related to the underworld, and what we find on the bluff tops, which is related to the celestial realm, the upper world,” explained Simek.

All of which were important to indigenous people and their circle of life.

“This experience has sort of heightened your curiosity and your creativity, about the way people were living in the past,” Sherwood said. “It gives them much more of a three-dimensional life, like our own in terms of spirituality and connections to a place, and to family, and to our kin, our ancestors.”

People can experience this wonder up close in Clarksville.

“That is Dunbar Cave, north of Nashville,” Simek said. “Where a very large archaeological site had accumulated in the mouth of that cave. We know it that goes back 10,000 years.”

The site is also home to significant Prehistoric Native American cave art. Another stop on their journey to new discovery as they continue to preserve the past.

“I think we’ll all keep doing it,” Sherwood says with an infectious laugh, “as long as our knees will hold up.”

Vandals defaced ancient Big Bend rock art by scratching their names into it

by Sara Spary
7 January 2022

(CNN) — A panel of prehistoric stone artworks, thought to be between 4,000 and 8,500 years old, have been “irreparably damaged” by vandals at Big Bend National Park in Texas, the US National Park Service has said.The ancient petroglyphs were defaced by visitors who scratched their names and a date into the rock, which is positioned in the Indian Head area of the archaeological site, the park service said in a press release published Tuesday.

The names Norma, Adrian, Isaac and Ariel and the date 12/26/21 are visible in images of the defaced rock.

The panel has since been treated but the damage, which was thought to have been done December 26, is still visible and the stone can’t be restored to its original state, Tom VandenBerg , Big Bend National Park’s chief of interpretation and visitor services, told CNN Friday.

In a press release, the National Park Service said there had been more than 50 instances of illegal vandalism recorded at the park since 2015, and it urged anyone with information to come forward.

“Damaging natural features and rock art destroys the very beauty and history that the American people want to protect in our parks,” Bob Krumenaker, superintendent of Big Bend National Park, said in the release.

“With each instance of vandalism, part of our Nation’s heritage is lost forever,” he said.

VandenBerg told CNN in an email that the graffiti was etched over “abstract images of geometric forms, circles, and undulating lines.” 

“The surface scratches and discoloration are permanent,” he said. “Ancient rock art is protected, and links humanity to our past. Every site damaged is a loss to the history and heritage that National Parks protects.”

He said Big Bend National Park, which opened 1944, was of archaeological importance and was a “prime example” of a Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem with a “myriad” of wildlife and specialized plants living alongside 13,000 years of human history. 

The Big Bend National Park in Texas is a “prime example” of a Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem.
Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

‘Original archaeologists’: Arnhem Land traditional owners take charge of priceless rock art

In the past rock art research has been the domain of non-Indigenous academics but a group of Bininj people are now documenting it as they seek to preserve their history

by David Hancock
4 December 2021
The Guardian

Traditional owner Ricky Nabarlambarl and other Bininj, search for rock art in remote cave systems on the Arnhem Land Plateau.
Photograph: David Hancock/The Guardian

Traditional owners from western Arnhem Land say they are the “original archaeologists” of their country, and now they are taking action to preserve their priceless history on their own terms.

“Many of the stories are still hidden away from non-Indigenous people who have learned very little about them,” Bininj traditional owner Conrad Maralngurra says.

“They need to live with us for 10 or 20 years to get the whole meaning of cultural integrity.”

This week, a group of Bininj traditional owners from the breathtaking stone country of western Arnhem Land travelled to Darwin to present a digital portrait of their country and culture focused around rock art to the annual conference of the Australian Archeological Association.

Rock art at Marebu, near Manmoyi, on the Warddeken IPA.
Indigenous ranger Berribob Watson holds modern and ancient technology, a two-way radio and a stone used for grinding pigments for painting. Warddeken ranger Ricky Nabarlambarl stands behind.

Berribob Watson, of Manmoyi, and Maralngurra, of Mamadawerre, two small outstations on the Arnhem Land plateau about 300km east of Darwin, detailed the work of nearly 200 Bininj Aboriginal people and addressed the conference in English and Bininj Kunwok (dialects of western Arnhem Land).

“We spoke to them as the original archeologists of our country,” Maralngurra says.

“We have been writing it [history] down from the start, on the rock. Stories on that rock is the law, our heritage and gives people their rights.”

Bininj are traditional occupants of western Arnhem Land, which borders Kakadu and Nitmiluk national parks in the west and south-west. The region’s Kombolgie sandstone has been carved by a cycle of wet and dry seasons over millennia and is one of the world’s most remote and inaccessible regions. Indigenous occupation goes back to the last ice age. Rich rock art is liberally scattered on the walls and ceilings of sandstone shelters.

It is estimated there are three or four art sites for every 10 sq km of rocky terrain, potentially more than 40,000 sites. Most art is in or near areas where Bininj lived for thousands of years. While some sites are specific to men or women, most are communal.

In the recent past, rock art research has been the domain of non-Indigenous anthropologists and archaeologists employed by tertiary institutions with government funding. Their findings, including interviews with traditional owners, photographs and artefacts taken from sites, often remained with institutions where they were archived. Rarely did the data come back to a community in any form other than a research paper or government document.

However, Bininj have turned that model on its head.

Edna Midjarda at Kuwuleng, near Manmoyi, a large gallery illustrated by her ancestors for thousands of years.

In 2010, Aboriginal elders from the Warddeken and Djelke IPAs established the Karrkad-Kandji Trust to seek alternative sources of funding for land management and cultural projects. The trust approaches Australian and international philanthropic organisations and individuals.

The KKT established a $5m rock art project in Arnhem Land, the main contributor being the Ian Potter Foundation. Bininj hired their own support staff – Claudia Cialone and Chester Clarke – to live in their communities and coordinate a program to help Bininj locate, record, preserve and maintain sites and artwork.

A barramundi and female spirit figure painted in a white pigment called huntite, a scarce mineral mined, traded and highly valued by Bininj.

“We employed these people because we want them to help us preserve the stories through Balanda [European] ways. We also want to share the stories but we want to take control and have legal ownership of the knowledge. We want to maintain, preserve and protect it for the benefit of our own country and people,” Maralngurra says.

The rock art program has an annual budget of $800,000 and employs more than 50 traditional owners and 100 Indigenous rangers, who spend much of their time travelling through remote areas to locate sites. Art is recorded by camera and video, and appropriate landholders are interviewed. The information is stored digitally for future generations.

According to Claudia Cialone, Warddeken land management has built a unique rock art conservation team.

“An academic paper is not enough to express Bininj passion and interest in rock art, so they decided to create their own narrative and take that to the world,” Cialone says.

Maralngurra said the program is sparking interest all across western Arnhem Land and people in larger settlements, who have not been back to their traditional country, are clamouring to return.

“Rock art is at the root of our society,” he said. “It is where we get the stories from. There is a lot of enthusiasm for people to go back and see where their story was established.”

There are more than 125,000 known rock art sites in Australia, from the Torres Strait to Tasmania.

Some contain grand, elevated galleries while others may hold a single, faded image on an out-of-the-way rock face or cave wall. Artistic styles include paintings, rock engravings (petroglyphs) and beeswax motifs and designs. Scientists believe some examples to be 30,000 years old.

Rock art hotspots include Arnhem Land, the Kimberley and the Pilbara.

Global heating is destroying rock art tens of thousands of years old, experts warn

by Tory Shepherd
16 November 2021
The Guardian

Serious damage has already been done as erosion, fires, floods and cyclones increase in intensity

Aboriginal rock art including depictions of European ships on Stanley Island, far north Queensland. The climate crisis threatens ‘catastrophic’ damage. Photograph: Suzanne Long/Alamy

Rock art that has lasted tens of thousands of years is being destroyed by the climate emergency in a matter of years.

Coastal erosion, fires, floods and cyclones are among the extreme events predicted to get more severe with global heating. Archaeologists and historians are now warning that serious damage has already been done.

A Flinders University symposium was held on Tuesday in reaction to the sixth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which warned of a “likely” global temperature rise of more than 1.5C, bringing more extreme weather events.

Some of the changes are now inevitable and “irreversible”, the report warned.

Dr Daryl Wesley, a multidisciplinary archaeologist from Flinders, told the forum about the destruction wreaked by Cyclone Monica, one of Australia’s most severe tropical cyclones, which smashed through Arnhem Land in 2006.

Old Man’s Hand at Minjnymirnjdawabu on Manilakarr estate in western Arnhem Land – one of the sites at risk.
Photograph: Daryl Wesley

It blew down half the trees in a 50km wide swathe, pushing some into rock art sites and destroying them. After that, fire came, made more intense because of the fuel load Monica left behind.

Rock art is also often painted on sandstone, which sucks up lots of water. The heat from the fires expands the water, exploding the rock, and the sites are gone.

Wesley said a range of environmental and human factors were already degrading rock art – he has documented changes over the past 56 years.

But he said the climate crisis was “probably going to push that over an edge” as weather including cyclones gets even more severe.

“Today, we’re in sort of a critical situation or critical juncture,” he said.

A Griffith University archaeological scientist, Dr Jillian Huntley, has discovered salt crystals are collapsing rocks in the world’s oldest paintings, as the crystals expand and contract in changing weather.

Huntley studies rock art in the Australasian monsoon domain, which stretches from Australia’s north up into Indonesia, and she specialises in rock art in Sulawesi. She said the same effect caused by the salt can be seen through Australia’s top end and in the Pilbara in Western Australia. The crystallisation effect is being accelerated by climate change, she said, which is worse in the tropics.

“Those temperature increases are felt at a rate three times the rest of the world,” she said. “A 2.4C warming would be a 6C warming in the tropics, which would be absolutely catastrophic.”

She said the IPCC report was “conservative” and that a “severe, drastic and short-term cut in emissions” was necessary immediately.

“Not net zero by 2050,” she said. “Net zero as soon as possible.”

A symposium organiser and Flinders archaeology lecturer, Dr Ania Kotarba, said it was important to look to the past to plan for the future.

“Humans have been dealing with environmental challenges, climate extremes and natural disasters for millennia,” she said.

“While the severity and speed of changes now is new and pressing, archaeological and historical research can, and should, excavate examples of communities adapting to rapid change, often in a sustainable way, and offer insights for the future.”

A Flinders University environmental historian, Dr Alessandro Antonello, said in the meantime: “Humanity must both drastically reduce carbon emissions and adapt our lives to these rapidly changing circumstances.”

Caltech says it regrets drilling holes in sacred Native American petroglyph site

by Louis Sahagún
19 July 2021
Los Angeles Times

Ancient figures are etched into the rock faces at the Fish Slough Petroglyphs site in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Volcanic Tablelands area near Bishop, Calif. Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times

BISHOP, Calif. — Inside federal Ranger Chris Mason’s patrol truck, the radio crackled with alarming news: People were seen lugging bags of heavy equipment into a protected site containing prehistoric rock carvings.
Archeologists know the site as the Volcanic Tablelands, an otherworldly landscape of pink-hued cliffs and terraces shaped by wind, rain and earthquakes. It was also an area where it was not unusual to find looters armed with shovels and saws prowling for anything that could be sold in the illegal antiquities market.

But when Mason arrived at the scene on Earth Day 2017, he determined that the suspicious activity involved a faculty member and students from Caltech, the prestigious private research university in Pasadena known for its strength in science and engineering, and for managing NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Joseph Kirschvink, a professor of geoscience, had used a portable pneumatic drill to extract core samples for paleomagnetic studies, officials said. He drilled into rock face roughly three feet from a petroglyph and left the site riddled with 29 1-inch diameter holes marked with blue paint.

Fish Slough, a National Natural Landmark on the eastern edge of the Volcanic Tablelands, includes vivid petroglyphs chipped into bizarrely eroded volcanic tuff formations. Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times

The trouble is, Kirschvink was not authorized to conduct research in the area designated to be of critical concern in California’s eastern Sierra Nevada, and that was the reason he and Caltech came under investigation for violating the Archeological Resources Protection Act. 

The site, near Bishop, is administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The expansive petroglyph site is one of the oldest recorded in the West and easily accessible by road. A placard at a popular viewing site roughly one mile north of where the damage occurred warns visitors that “no person may excavate, remove, damage or otherwise deface any archeological resource.”

It took four years to resolve the case due to delays caused by the pandemic, and the strict requirements and complexities of the agency’s forensic protocol and damage assessment procedures, officials said.

Kirschvink did not respond to requests for comment. 

Native Americans, archeologists and federal land managers have long complained that unlawful removal and destruction of artifacts and sacred sites destroy priceless cultural connections, along with scientific data that allow a better understanding of the earliest inhabitants of North America.

An uptick in unauthorized incursions by university professors armed with geology picks and pneumatic drills in recent years has only compounded their frustrations. The area is known for its Bishop tuff — a type of rock formed by super-heated volcanic ash, which is of interest to researchers. 

“Those formations and the prayers etched into them so many thousands of years ago belong to the public,” said Kathy Jefferson Bancroft, tribal historic preservation officer for the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Reservation. “They are not sources of raw material for unpermitted academic studies.”

Linea Sundstrom, co-chair of the nonprofit American Rock Art Research Association’s conservation and preservation committee, agrees.

“There’s no excuse for it,” she said. “It’s bad education if university professors are not making their students aware of laws protecting archeological sites on public lands.”

Beyond that, Barbara Bane, archeological curator at the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest, Calif., wondered aloud: “Are these university professors actually saying they couldn’t have gone someplace else to drill their holes? Really?”

The answer to that question is reflected in the penalties meted by Bureau of Land Management officials after lengthy investigations.

Unauthorized drilling of core samples by a Caltech professor left dozens of 1-inch-diameter holes at the petroglyph site in the Volcanic Tablelands.
Photo by David Lee

Caltech in June agreed to pay $25,465 to the Department of the Interior to cover the costs of repairing damage from the drilling, which the Bureau of Land Management concluded was “inadvertent.” Under the terms of the agreement, it also promised “meaningful academic and educational outreach about the importance of obtaining appropriate federal permits before conducting research on public lands.”

In a statement, Caltech said, “While this was an isolated incident that took place more than four years ago, we deeply regret the damage caused to public lands, especially in light of this area’s sacred meaning to local tribal groups.”

“Going forward,” it added, “Caltech will conduct academic and educational outreach to promote fuller understanding, appreciation, and respect for the importance of clear authorization before undertaking research with the potential to affect geological or archeological resources in any way — both within our community and the broader geosciences field.”

It’s not just Caltech. 

The University of Texas at Dallas in 2018 paid $19,842 in connection with 41 holes drilled two years earlier without authorization into a rock art site on agency land just over the Nevada border, about 25 miles east of the Volcanic Tablelands.

That research was led by John Geissman, 69, a university professor at the time, who said he deeply regrets the incident.

“I made a big mistake, and it haunts me to this day,” said Geissman, who recently retired. “I have obligations as a geoscientist and a human being to do the right thing.”

As required under terms of that university’s 3-year-old settlement with the Bureau of Land Management, Geissman said he is working on an article to be published in an American Geophysical Union journal that “will include a sufficiently detailed section on my mistake.”

“Honestly, I recognize that I have been slow on this,” he said. “For the past few years I have been trying to graduate all my PhD students in a timely fashion, and that involves a lot of editing of many versions of manuscripts for publication.”

Then there was Cal State Northridge, which in 2008 paid $25,397 to settle a case that involved the unauthorized drilling of 41 1-inch holes into a petroglyph site on agency land about 15 miles south of Bishop.

Critics believe untold other drillings have gone unreported in volcanic landscapes across the West since paleomagnetic studies emerged as an important scientific endeavor in the 1950s.

For Native Americans, the geometric shapes, animals and human figures etched by their ancestors into the rocks at the Fish Slough Petroglyphs site are part of a living spiritual world. Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times

At the 36,000-acre Volcanic Tablelands in Inyo County, geology runs wild: Cinder cones streaked with orange and red rise from desert badlands, along with sharp-edged cliffs and boulders that were created by a cataclysmic explosion 760,000 years ago.

Fish Slough, a National Natural Landmark on the eastern edge of the tablelands, includes vivid petroglyphs chipped into bizarrely eroded volcanic tuff formations that overlook a verdant desert oasis laced with meandering spring-fed creeks.

For researchers, its stark geological wonders contain detectable evidence of prehistoric shifts in the ability of Earth’s magnetic field to shield the planet’s surface from cosmic rays. Some researchers suggest these shifts may have influenced global climate and the evolution of species and entire ecosystems — from deep-sea vents to rainforests.

For Native Americans, however, the pictorial outbursts of sun discs, spirals, zigzags, deer, sheep, snakes and human figures etched into cliffs and boulders by prehistoric clans over scores of generations are part of a living spiritual world.

They tell cryptic stories of the past, when the climate was cooler and wetter, and when man lived closer to nature.

Many of the images were carved into desert varnish, a thin red to black coating found on exposed rock surfaces.

Bureau of Land Management officials said the university-related incidents were reported by volunteer “petroglyph patrols” organized by the California Archeological Site Stewardship Program. 

Mason was unavailable for comment. But David Lee, a stewardship program member and independent rock art researcher, recalled, “I’m the one who turned in the Caltech group.”

“Immediately after I spotted them,” he said, “I shot into town and notified BLM authorities. A short while later, Ranger Mason arrived at the scene.”

In Lee’s view however, the problem is far from solved. There is no petroglyph site on public land in the United States that is not at risk right now from vandalism, he said.

More volunteers are needed to keep an eye on these engraved messages from the past, Lee said, because federal land managers are overwhelmed by ever-increasing numbers of visitors. 

“Why should we care? Because these images are still considered sacred by the descendants of the people who made them.”

by Debra Utacia Krol
16 August 2021
Arizona Republic

Tourists speeding north on Arizona State Route 64 toward Grand Canyon National Park rarely notice the rocky protuberance that juts above the flat expanse of the Coconino Plateau about 2 miles to the east.

But to the Havasu ‘Baaja, known to the world as the Havasupai Tribe or “People of the Blue-Green Water,” the isolated hill forms the center of their lands and spiritual life.

Red Butte (Wii’I Gdwiisa or “Clenched Fist Mountain”) is the abdomen of Mother Earth. Mat Taav Tiivjunmdva, a meadow about 3 miles north of the distinctive mountain close to the Canyon’s South Rim, is her navel.

But Red Butte and Mat Taav Tiivjunmdva are part of the Kaibab National Forest and do not lie within the trust land borders of the Havasupai, who were evicted from Grand Canyon National Park in 1919.That means a federal agency and not the Havasupai control the land, deciding who uses it and how. It means the Havasupai must argue their interests alongside other public land users.

And often it means someone else is allowed to use the land and, in the eyes of the Havasupai, desecrate it.

Native peoples have always regarded certain places, like mountains, springs, particular groves of trees, rock formations or petroglyph sites as sacred spaces. These sites serve as churches, much like synagogues, mosques, temples or other structures serve Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and other religious communities.

But like Red Butte and Mat Taav Tiivjunmdva, many of these spaces lie outside of tribal trust land borders, often on public lands. Some of the most well-known places are in Arizona and the southern Colorado River Valley.

Federal laws meant to protect these spaces or Native American religious practices, often come up short. Some legal experts say the federal government seems to practice a double standard when it comes to upholding the religious rights of Native peoples.

Tribes must deal with a revolving door of federal officials and opposition by stakeholders like recreation companies or extraction firms. They also face a lack of knowledge by the public about these places and why Indigenous peoples fight to keep them from harm, or at least further harm.

At Red Butte, the conflict has grown out of the forests and other lands surrounding the Grand Canyon, which are permeated with uranium ore that pierces the ground beneath in long, thin “breccia pipes.”

The Mining Act of 1872 gives U.S. citizens the right to stake claims on federal lands. One claim led to a now-idled mine on the plateau in the vicinity of Mat Taav Tiivjunmdva.

The 750-member Havasupai tribe, the only U.S. tribe that still lives below the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, has long been concerned about the mine. They fear radioactive materials will contaminate their water supply and spoil the sparkling turquoise waters tourists seek out that provide tribal members with their principal revenue source, rendering what’s left of their ancestral homeland uninhabitable.

The environmental damage could irreparably alter the ecology of the Canyon, the Havasupai say, and as it worsens, they could perish as a distinct people.

“When (the mining company) heard about our protest (against them), they approached us and offered us money and we told them, ‘No, we don’t want your money,'” the late Havasupai Chairman Rex Tilousi said during a 1992 hearing on uranium mining in Indigenous communities.

“Money is not worth the future, the destruction, the contamination of our home, the waters, the air, the earth, plant life, wildlife. When these things are contaminated, money will never cover the destruction which is going to happen if we let these mining companies come in and desecrate the areas we regard as very sacred.”

The Havasupai and their environmentalist allies have lost at least two legal battles to prevent the mine from further development. In one case, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals determined that because Red Butte had not been designated as a “historic property” eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places until 2010, the Forest Service did not have to consider the site when it conducted an environmental impact study and tribal consultation in 1986.

The tribe said its only hope now to prevent any other mines from opening is a mining ban on land near the Canyon, a measure that passed the U.S. House of Representatives in February and awaits Senate action.

A group protests uranium mining near the Grand Canyon during the Havasupai Tribe’s Intertribal Spiritual Gathering in 2018.
Mark Henle/The Republic

But the mine near Red Butte would not close because it would predate the legislation.

It’s that sort of bureaucratic obstacle Native peoples continue to fight across Arizona and the Southwest. Their long-held spiritual ties to the land have been broken by laws, redrawn boundaries and the regulations that open public lands to profitable uses.

Not far from Red Butte, near Flagstaff, the San Francisco Peaks have been the center of conflicts over reclaimed-wastewater use on a peak known as the home of the Hopi katsinam, the holy people who bring life-giving rain to the three mesas of the Hopi among other activities. More than a dozen tribes consider the Peaks sacred.

South Mountain in Phoenix, part of the nation’s second-largest urban park, is a sacred space to O’odham and Pee Posh peoples, yet a spur of the peak was demolished for freeway construction.

Mount Graham in eastern Arizona was lost to Apache peoples at the stroke of a presidential pen, and severely damaged by decades of logging, recreation and a huge observatory.

Oak Flat, east of Superior, is under sentence of obliteration despite being a vitally important sacred place to Apaches.

The Blythe Intaglios, some of the largest geoglyphs in the U.S., hold some protection, but others in the area are threatened by vandalism or unintentional destruction.

Tribes have tried to preserve these spaces, but they have lost court cases and administrative decisions, their spiritual claims pushed aside by the law.

And over time, these places held sacred by Indigenous peoples — from remote mountains to a Phoenix city park — have become disputed spaces.

Petroglyphs created by the Huhugam are scattered throughout South Mountain Park in Phoenix.
While the land is public, the tribes consider the land to be a sacred site.
Cheryl Evans/The Republic

Laws hamper Native site protection

The federal government’s philosophy of asserting moral and religious superiority over Native peoples may date back to a directive issued by a 15th-century pope.

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee and Lenape, has studied how international law affects U.S. laws that apply to Indigenous nations and peoples for nearly 40 years. His research revealed that, in 1493, the issuance of a papal bull, or decree, bestowed authority over the Western Hemisphere on Christian rulers.

That decree influenced how the U.S. regards Christianity as a superior religion, said Newcomb, author of “Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery.” U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall referred to the “Doctrine of Discovery” in at least one of the three decisions he wrote in the early 19th century known as the Marshall Trilogy that laid the foundation of federal Indian law.

Marshall wrote that in 1496, King Henry VII of Great Britain commissioned explorer John Cabot to discover countries then unknown to Christians and claim them in the king’s name. He asserted a right to take possession of the United States, “notwithstanding the occupancy of the natives, who were heathens, and, at the same time, admitting the prior title of any Christian people who may have made a previous discovery.”

“The distinction that the chief justice made is between Christian people and Natives who are ‘heathens,'” Newcomb said. “What’s being used against Native nations is the Bible and Christianity, and the idea that the chosen people have been chosen to take over the lands that God bequeathed to them as an everlasting possession or inheritance.”

Superior is near Oak Flat and other sacred sites. Apache groups sued to stop the federal government from allowing a copper mine to occupy land held sacred by Arizona tribes. Cheryl Evans/The Republic

From 1883 until 1934, the U.S. officially forbade Native American religious practices through the “Code of Indian Offenses.” The document was intended to obliterate Native cultures by halting religious and cultural practices.

Retired law professor Robert N. Clinton noted in a 2008 blog post that medicine practices, Native dances, giving marriage gifts to the bride’s family, traditional reciprocal gift-giving and other customs were all made punishable offenses, sometimes by denying food for violations, other times with jail terms.

Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier took a more progressive approach to Native issues. He issued a 1934 circular ending the practice: “The cultural liberty of Indians is in all respects to be considered equal to that of any non-Indian group.”

Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, known as AIRFA. The legislation sought to reverse longtime federal policies that prohibited Indigenous peoples from practicing their religions.

This policy statement established federal policies to “protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians.” The legislation also called for access to cultural sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 prohibits state or federal governments from placing substantial burdens on a person’s religious exercise except under certain conditions.

Other federal laws govern how agencies make decisions about projects on public lands and protect Indigenous cultural and religious spaces

  • The Antiquities Act of 1906 gave the president the power to create national monuments to preserve historic landmarks and structures, prehistoric assets and other objects of historic or scientific interest.
  • The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, or NHPA, oversees preservation of assets deemed important to U.S. history. One sectionrequires federal agencies to identify and study what effect a particular project would have on buildings or sites and requires tribal consultation when archaeological sites, artifacts, and culturally and religiously important sites are involved. NHPA also requires developing alternatives that could prevent, mitigate or minimize damage to a site.
  • The historic preservation act led to the establishment of the National Register of Historic Places, which is overseen by the National Park Service. Traditional cultural properties are places of cultural, religious or historic importance to a tribal community that can be included in the national register.
  • The National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, governs how federal agencies assess environmental effects of projects, such as a mine on federal land, and to inform the public about any adverse effects that can’t be avoided. The 1970 legislation also requires that agencies list alternatives that may affect a final decision.
  • The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, provides protections for Native burial sites and control over Indigenous remains, funerary and sacred objects, and cultural patrimony on federal or tribal lands. The National Park Service administers the law.
  • Several states have NAGPRA laws governing Native burial sites and cultural patrimony. The Arizona State Museum administers the state’s ordinances on both state and private lands.
  • In 1996, President Bill Clinton ordered federal land managers to, “when practicable,” accommodate access to public lands by Native religious practitioners and to avoid adversely affecting the integrity of sacred sites. In 2000, Clinton also issued an order to establish meaningful consultation and collaboration with tribes.

All these laws have shortcomings.

Tribal members worry that Havasupai Falls could be contaminated with radiation if uranium mines near the Grand Canyon leach tailings into the groundwater. Pat Shannahan/The Republic

Marc Fink, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said laws like NEPA give the public a chance to participate in public land decision making, allow for other agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state agencies to weigh in on projects, and create the opportunity for public land agencies to “look before they leap” into projects that may have an impact on ecologies.

But Fink said the courts have made clear that NEPA is a procedural law, not an enforcement act. This means federal agencies don’t have to heed the reports they generate when issuing a final decision on a project known as a Record of Decision, except to comply with enforceable laws like the Endangered Species Act or the Clean Water Act.

Although these laws contain some provisions for private and state lands, NEPA and NHPA extend protections of cultural heritage sites, ancestral burials and landscapes primarily to public lands, said Shannon O’Loughlin, chief executive and attorney at the Association on American Indian Affairs. 

She said this situation creates a “checkerboard” of cultural heritage protection between federal land, other public lands and private land.

Canyon Mine, a uranium mine near the Grand Canyon, in 2018. Mark Henle/The Republic

“Our cultural heritage and sacred places should be treated with that same kind of protection holistically all across the country, not just on federal land,” she said.

In some Midwestern states or along the Mississippi River, where mound-building cultures held sway for centuries before Europeans arrived, O’Loughlin said, non-Native people feel they have carte blanche to dig up and loot sacred places.

“Those states have treated those sites like they are their own cultural heritage instead of the Indigenous peoples around them,” she said.

Tribal consultation, which is mandated in all areas of federal land project proposals, is a sore subject for tribes.

“NEPA and NHPA only require that consultation processes be followed,” O’Loughlin said. “To many, consultation is just a procedural check-off box.”

And, she said, effective consultation depends on personnel on site at any particular time. “It’s dependent on who’s staffing the agency,” O’Loughlin said. 

That gives federal land managers great discretion in land and resource use and protection, said John Welch, a professor at Simon Fraser University and head of landscape and site protection programs at Archaeology Southwest. 

“Sacred sites lack specific and enforceable protections,” he said.  

The Arizona Republic talked with many tribal leaders and tribal organizations who almost unanimously agreed with O’Loughlin’s and Welch’s assessments.

In one example, The Republic obtained a letter from the Pueblo of Zuni to President Joe Biden regarding an executive order directing the advancement of racial equity and support for underserved communities.

“Without directly, foundationally, and restoratively confronting and continually materially addressing and redressing geographical injustices of governmental and colonial-settler actions, programs, and procedures that have occurred — and continue to occur — over space and time, the Biden-Harris Administration … cannot sincerely, meaningfully, honestly, or effectively advance any reasonable levels or forms of equity and support for Native peoples,” said the letter, signed by Zuni Governor Val R. Panteah.

“On the contrary,” the letter said, “the Administration will simply perpetuate and reproduce ongoing injustices of ethnically cleansing Native peoples from Native lands.”

Agencies frequently make only cursory consultations or, in the worst cases, claim that simply sending a notification letter to the tribe fulfills consultation protocols. Others reach out to a tribal community only at the very end of a project, which gives the tribe no opportunity to participate in discussions or to help develop the project in a way all parties can live with.  

O’Loughlin, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, contrasted cultural and sacred site protection with clean air and water legislation or endangered species protection, which are regulated nationwide and not just on public lands.

“If an eagle dies and falls on a piece of property out here, I have absolutely no right to that eagle,” O’Loughlin said. “I can’t take a part of it, I can’t use it, and can’t make something out of it. I have to call the feds.”

She’s referring to federal laws and regulations that protect eagles and their parts. Even as a member of a federally recognized tribe that has legal rights to own and use eagle feathers or eagle parts, O’Loughlin still must abide by these laws.   

She said that because NAGPRA doesn’t require that burials be left in place, the government’s stance seems to be, “We just have to dig it up and pay to have the ancestors stored in a museum.”

The result: “There is nothing in federal law that’s required for a site to be sacred,” O’Loughlin said. “There’s no legal requirement to save a sacred place.”

The Blythe intaglios were created on the desert floor hundreds if not thousands of years ago by native people for an unknown reason. The tribes view this land as sacred and want to preserve it for future generations. The one on the left appears to be a human figure while the one on the right appears to be an animal. Michael Chow, Thomas Hawthorne/The Republic

‘Catastrophic’ damage to religious and cultural sites

The damage to Indigenous cultures from destroying sacred sites can be catastrophic, said David Martinez, an associate professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University. 

“If you put a road through a sacred site, then you put something that doesn’t respect that space as belonging to the spirits that dwell there,” he said. “One of the most immediate consequences is that part of your culture is likely to perish.” 

Native cultural rights advocates point out that the land itself is what gives a place its sacred significance. If those sites are altered or destroyed, they say, the spirituality they hold disappears. 

That’s because once the place is obliterated or is contaminated with artifacts that Martinez said Americans regard as progress, many medicine people won’t return to that site.

“They think it’s contaminated,” said Martinez, an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Community who is Akimel O’odham and Hia Ced O’odham.  

Despite decades of studies conducted by federal agencies, Native religious practices that depend on specific sites are consistently given short shrift when land use decisions are made. 

The Republic examined reports covering the last decade in Arizona and found that federal environmental impact studies carefully explain the cultural damage that could occur with project alternatives and suggest mitigation strategies, such as removal of archaeological artifacts. 

Mining firms and developers argue that their projects will be environmentally sound. They promise to fund archaeological firms and hire tribal members to salvage what artifacts or plants they can before the land succumbs to excavation or paving. 

But tribal cultural practitioners and legal experts say the laws and policies meant to bolster First Amendment religious rights fall far short of protecting Native religious rights. Law professors Stephanie Hall Barclay and Michalyn Steele recently published an article in the Harvard Law Review detailing those laws’ shortcomings.

“The callous destruction of Indigenous sacred sites is not just a troubling relic of the past,” they wrote. As recently as 2020, the U.S. blew up Apache burial sites to clear the land for the border wall. In 2018, a federal court ruled that a Native burial ground and stone altar still used for religious ceremonies could be bulldozed “merely to expand a road.”

Machines blow artificial snow over Arizona Snowbowl in 2019. The ski resort uses reclaimed wastewater to make snow for its slopes.
Thomas Hawthorne/The Republic

The scholars wrote that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Free Exercise Clause in the First Amendment, and other such legal protections have been eviscerated by the courts when it comes to Native religion, stripping them of their ability to protect sacred sites.

Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery, a case that’s taught in many Indian law classes as one of the chief culprits in weakening the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, set the stage for other Native sacred site cases to come.

In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Northern California tribes seeking to prevent a logging road from irreparably damaging sacred sites, even after the environmental impact study recommended against the U.S. Forest Service constructing the road.

“Even assuming that the Government’s actions here will virtually destroy the Indians’ ability to practice their religion, the Constitution simply does not provide a principle that could justify upholding respondents’ legal claims,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote on behalf of the majority. 

The court also wrote that the federal government has the right to use its land however it decides, and that if the government does not force a tribe or tribal member to forgo a government benefit such as Social Security or other benefit to practice their religion, there is no substantial burden on those religious practices.

“When the government has created an obstacle that physically impedes the ability of Christian worshippers to access their sacred spaces, we view this as a particularly egregious burden on religious exercise,” Barclay, a non-Indian, and Steele, who is a citizen of the Seneca Nation of Indians of New York, wrote. “But when the government desecrates, destroys, and removes access to Indigenous sacred sites — making previous religious ceremonies physically impossible at those locations — the coercion evaporates.”

Barclay and Steele agreed with O’Loughlin’s assessment that protected species often receive more protections than do Indigenous peoples for their religious practices on government lands.  

In recent years, several sacred and cultural sites in Arizona and southern California have been threatened, or damaged. Tribal cultural practitioners and advocates say they have been spiritually, chemically or physically contaminated, resulting in cultural and religious losses, sometimes forever.  

“The belief of many communities is that the development has disrupted the communication between the people and the spirit,” Martinez said. 

And if ceremonies cease to take place at that site, he said, or if medicine people or other cultural practitioners quit practicing their religion, the cultures suffer from neglect, and can eventually perish.

Resolution Copper wants to exact copper from Oak Flat, a campground that is part of the Tonto National Forest in Miami, Arizona. The method of extraction that the mining company wants to use will eventually create a giant sinkhole on land sacred to the Apache.
Michael Chow, Thomas Hawthorne/The Republic

‘Trying to understand our humanity’

Sacred lands still face new threats. One development that concerns the Mojave as well as the Quechan, the Chemehuevi and other southern desert peoples is the expansion of solar plants.

“With the encroachment of solar,” Colorado River Indian Tribes Chairwoman Amelia Flores said, “we have tried to establish a relationship with the BLM, since it controls those lands that hold sites that our ancestors carved out, whether it be the petroglyphs, the rock shrines or even the trails.”

About 10 million acres of Bureau of Land Management-controlled lands in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts in California fall under the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan.

Developed by federal and state agencies, the plan, which encompasses a total of 22.6 million acres of land, including federal and nonfederal lands, acknowledges the rich cultural and tribal heritage of southeastern California as well as a diverse range of plants and animals like desert tortoises, which are threatened. The plan seeks to protect sensitive cultural and ecological sites while allowing for solar plants to sprout like black lakes on the desert floor in selected places.

Hikers pass petroglyphs at South Mountain Park in Phoenix.
Cheryl Evans/The Republic

But tribes are still concerned that the millennial-long evidence of their existence in the harsh lands will disappear underneath bulldozers and pavement. Environmental groups share that concern, particularly after the Trump administration attempted to amend the plan to allow for faster approvals of renewable energy projects and broadband infrastructure. The Biden administration rescinded that move in February.  

President Joe Biden has made tribal consultation and building stronger intergovernmental relations a priority. The day he took office, Biden issued a memorandum to federal agencies which he said reaffirmed the principles of the Clinton-era executive order. 

A memorandum of understanding created cross-agency protocols for sacred site protection in 2012. The original agreement was slated to expire in 2017 but was extended through 2024.   

On her first day in office in March, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland met with several Native American journalists, including a Republic reporter, about her goals in managing the U.S.’s largest agency. During the online meeting, she pledged to give tribes a greater voice in public land management.

“I want to make sure that every tribe has an opportunity to speak to me, to speak to other agencies across the federal government, and that those voices are extremely important,” she said. “I want the era where tribes have been on the back burner to be over, and I want to make sure that they have real opportunities to have a seat at the table.”

The Interior Department declined further comment for this story. 

The Forest Service “committed to ensuring a consistent level of protection for American Indian and Alaska Native sacred sites on National Forest System lands,” said an Agriculture Department spokesperson.

The agency has a strong working relationship with the Interior Department and has a goal of reviewing and updating the interagency sacred site protection memorandum of understating, the spokesperson said. The agency also wants to ensure that “tribes have a proper voice on land issues about Indian sacred sites.”

Native rights supporters suggest a variety of moves that can help make protecting cultural and sacred sites easier, or at least not as fraught as in past years.

Consultation early and often between tribes and agencies is one strategy that can help protect sacred sites, said O’Loughlin.

“We need to define consultation as a substantive right and manage it that way,” she said.

As some Indigenous groups are doing in other nations, tribes could find resources to evaluate religious and cultural heritage sites in advance of proposed uses like mines and logging. Those evaluations would be held as confidential by the tribal government unless they’re needed, O’Loughlin said.

The Zuni tribal letter called for the assessment and transformation of the National Historic Preservation Act and National Environmental Protection Act that the tribe said create structural barriers to tribal input and respect for tribal cultural values.

These and other such laws embeds the concept of tribal cultural material as archeological, which the tribe said enables governments to “de-legitimize nonarchaeological claims about the role of material culture in supporting claims to certain cultural affiliations and traditions and, thus land.” 

Martinez said more Americans should recognize that cultures are worth protecting.

“I think that American society is still influenced by this archaic melting pot ideology that became popularized 100 years ago with Teddy Roosevelt’s political agenda,” he said. “That ideology was imposed upon Indians in the reservation system, including the whole boarding school project, to assimilate into the American melting pot.”

Cultural preservation should be regarded as a vital part of democracy and not just within the realm of historians and anthropologists, Martinez said.

“It’s America’s agenda for its future, because the more diversity that exists, including Indigenous diversity, I think the better it is for a democracy like the United States, which purports to represent a broad spectrum of people, and it presumes to have people from all parts of the globe living here.”

Martinez hopes to educate people to understand that when they hear an Indigenous culture is under threat, they respond in the same manner as they would if they heard whales are in danger. In other words, he said he wants people to “feel more outrage that these things are happening in the first place.”

Cora Maxx-Phillips, a Navajo human rights activist, said the issue goes far beyond how laws are interpreted. “When we come to the word ‘sacredness,’ Westernized society does not have an inkling as to what that is,” she said. “Our spiritual ties with nature is something that will never be understood outside of Indigenous cultures.” 

But Maxx-Phillips also has an idea how to resolve that misunderstanding. “I’m looking at how we begin working on doing some more cross-cultural understanding,” she said.

“I think that that will maybe help us in trying to understand our humanity.”