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Recreational use of sacred sites damaging to spirituality

LAUGHLIN, Nev. – Randy Luden scaled a mountain of boulders etched with dozens of petroglyphs that could be thousands of years old, hoping to get as close as possible to the records of a past civilization. The Las Vegas man didn’t think he was damaging the representations made by descendants of Mojave Indians because he was careful and wore soft shoes.

That was of no consolation to two Mojaves watching from afar.

“Oh no; he shouldn’t be doing that,” said Paul Jackson Jr., a tribal artist for the Fort Mojave Reservation.

As Luden approached the Indians, Linda Otero, a Fort Mojave council woman, told him he shouldn’t have climbed on top of the glyphs because they were holy.

Gilbert Leivas, of the Chemehuevi Tribe, stands in front of geoglyphs Indians consider sacred and explains how off road vehicles come dangerously close to the site. Satellite images show tire tracks running across the glyphs.

“But how else am I going to get the full interpretation,” Luden responded.

Otero, in so many words, said he couldn’t.

“Treat them as you would other ancient sites in Europe. You just can’t go in their hall or records and touch their scrolls. They have guards and fences to block you, they are protected.”

At the end of the conversation, Luden apologized. Otero accepted.

Indians living in the vast Mojave Desert are increasingly vexing what they say are an onslaught of “Indiana Jones” types and lawless recreationists that are disturbing, damaging and even vandalizing sacred sites and breaching reservations. The 25,000-square-mile desert is the traditional home to half a dozen Indian tribes along the lower Colorado River that straddles the state lines of California, Arizona and Nevada.

“It’s a major issue for all of us along the river,” Otero said.

Indians say vandals, increasingly directed by Web sites and books, litter the sensitive sites with beer bottles and evidence of made up rituals. Off road vehicles leave a trail of destruction with tire marks across ancient geoglyphs and breach reservations.

Revelry from motor boat recreation along the Colorado River disturbs the serenity of holy areas. Concerns transcend across the desert into California’s Coachella Valley where tribes such as the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians are keeping vigil. The openness of the desert and its draw for people wanting to play is the problem, they say.

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“There is a small percentage that respects the land and our sites but there are more that don’t care. They are pretty rough. They don’t want nobody telling them what to do,” said Matthew Leivas Sr., a council member for Chemehuevi Indian Tribe.

Last year, Chemehuevi Indians, concerned that off road vehicles were unintentionally entering reservation land, put up signs informing that permits were required, Leivas said. Within a week, the signs were torn down.

Federal managers acknowledge the problem, but say a lack of funds preclude a comprehensive enforcement and education strategy to mitigate damage from off road vehicles.

“A lot of people have quads and jeeps, it’s very true. In the winter they come to this part of the country and drive everywhere. It is a priority, but it takes funding, it takes partners,” said Karen Reichhardt, an assistant manager at the Yuma field office of the Bureau of Land Management.

The problem of off road vehicles has reached the halls of congress with Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., holding a hearing last year on the issue in part because of concerns of tribal leaders. Grijalva, the chairman of the subcommittee on Natural Park, Forests and Public Lands, cited a report saying off road recreational vehicle use has increased as much as 147 percent since 1993.

Help from BLM, which oversees 1.3 million acres along the Colorado River, is far off. A study to identify all off road trails in their area, and meant to assist mangers in developing a plan that could help tribes is five years away and teeters on the funding, Reichhardt said.

For their part, the National Park Service, which manages the site of Mojave petroglyphs at their Lake Mead National Recreation Area, is expected to erect interpretation posts by the end of the year after four meetings with representatives from area tribes, said NPS Public Affairs Officer Andrew Munoz. But plans for a barrier still linger in the planning stage. Munoz said the rangers regularly respond to calls of damaging the site and open investigations, if warranted.

But some tribes, tired of waiting on federal managers, are taking on official protective roles, sending out monitors and taking down license plates. A consortium of nonprofits made up of Colorado River area Indians have signed an agreement with BLM to protect giant but fragile geoglyphs etched on the desert varnish by the area’s early descendents. Without a fence for decades, the geoglyphs – believed to depict the ubiquitous child-eating figure – have been damaged by tire tracks, satellite photos show. The Native American Land Conservancy, which has in some cases purchased land in the Mojave Desert in order to preserve sacred sites, sends out monitors to ancient fist traps and other sites.

Some Indians have put fences around their open reservations only to find them torn down. The Fort Mojave Tribe recently fenced a large portion of its reservation after they found a dirt bike course on it and tire marks on the old concrete foundations of a government Indian school, a sensitive site for generations of Mojaves. Just below on the banks of the Colorado River, boisterous campers who have ignored several requests to leave, play loud music.

For the tribes along the Colorado River, significant sites are located throughout the entire Mojave Valley making it a spiritual zone. Protecting it from increasing human forces is taxing.

“It’s a great weight on us, but it’s our responsibility to share with others,” Otero said.

The valley includes purification and pilgrimage stops toward the omnipresent peak, Avi-kwa-ame, the place of origin and power.

The damage, whether blatant desecration or unintentional, is hindering Indian spiritually. Cara McCoy, of the Chemehuevi Tribe, recently went to a sacred site and found it so littered she couldn’t take off her shoes to properly pay respect. It also threatens the education of the young ones into tradition, leaving Indians questions about the future that could only be answered with their historical references.

“We are still fighting Indian wars here,” said Jackson, the Mojave artist, as he stood on a sacred site, looking down a stretch of river filled with rowdy boat recreationists.