Arizona State Parks Director fired after Arizona archaeological sites bulldozed

Lee Allen

New interim director: “I am committed to strengthening the department’s relationship with Arizona’s 22 tribes..."

An irate group of Native Arizona legislators and a growing number of their supporters had called for an investigation be conducted into alleged destruction of ancient artifacts in violation of the state’s Antiquities Act and for the removal of the state parks director and her assistant, asking that the two parks officials resign.

Instead, the two were placed on suspension — administrative leave with pay — from their respective six-figure-a-year jobs while the Governor’s office conducted a review. Navajo state senator Jamescita Mae Peshlakai called the move, “a slap on the wrist and a paid vacation.”

Days later, the big hammer came down and both Director Sue Black and Deputy Director Jim Keegan were fired from their jobs. The dismissals came in response to allegations that her department had flouted the State Antiquities Act, the State Historic Preservation Act, and the federal National Historic Preservation Act in connection with the destruction of archaeological sites — specifically property bulldozed at Lake Havasu State Park to make way for the building of revenue-producing cabins for rent.

Long-time public servant Ted Vogt, the former Executive Director of the Arizona Corporation who had previously served as the Chief Operating Officer for the state of Arizona, is now serving as interim director of the State Parks and Trails Department.

Initially agreeing to a question and answer interview with Indian Country Today, notification was later received that, “Unfortunately, the Director’s schedule has changed and he would like to provide a statement in lieu of the interview.”

Vogt’s statement read:

This administration cares deeply about protecting and preserving Arizona’s unique history (and) my goal is to ensure that operations at Arizona State Parks and Trails are conducted accordingly.

As interim director, I am committed to strengthening the department’s relationship with Arizona’s 22 tribes and the Native American community through tribal consultations as well as ensuring that the agency has appropriate processes and controls in place to protect our Native American and cultural heritage throughout the state.

Still left unanswered is the question of how perceived errors of the past are to be prevented from occurring in the future.

While the principal players in this scenario have been forced to depart, the requested investigation of alleged violations of laws designed to protect archaeological and historical resources continues, both at the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, and at the Arizona State Museum where its director, Dr. Patrick Lyons, is charged with overseeing permits and reviews involving activity at such sites.

Earlier this month, he told Indian Country Today that his investigation was on-going and he was not in a position to answer whether destruction at the Lake Havasu State Park site was a mistake or a blatant disregard of the process.

In following up to ascertain how that investigation was proceeding, ICT was told: “Although Dr. Lyons understands the interest, he will not be able to discuss or comment on the specifics of an active investigation until the investigation is completed.”

And when might that be? “We do not have a date or any sort of estimated time-frame.”

Equally tight-lipped is the actual investigating arm of the state government, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office where spokesperson Katie Conner said only, “Our office received a complaint from members of the Arizona Indigenous People’s Caucus regarding the alleged destruction of protected cultural and historical sites on state-owned parklands. The complaint has been forwarded to our Criminal Division for further review. We have no further comment at this time.”

The status of the investigation into the allegations, both by state museum curators and by the AG’s criminal complaint investigators, remains undetermined as does an anticipated date for completion of the investigation and what charges…if any…might be filed.

State Senator Peshlakai, a Navajo Nation Democrat and one of the four members of the Native American People’s Caucus who blew the initial whistle on the improper activities in early November, has yet to hear a word about what’s happening.

“The only sound here on the Navajo Nation is that of crickets,” she told Indian Country Today. “I’ve had no contact from anyone concerning the status of the investigation except the media, the people on the outside who are trying to keep an eye on the people on the inside. It’s another case of the governor and his departments who don’t feel like they need to be accountable to anybody. They’re off on their own rogue agenda.”

“I’m not saying it’s a racist thing, but to me, they think they know what’s best for everybody and that gives them the green light to do whatever they feel like doing,” said Peshlakai.

“Arizona is Indian Country and there should be a respectful line of communication. I’m not shocked at this lack of dialogue, it just makes me more committed and resolved to keep those in power accountable. This is a pretty serious thing that went on under the radar and we need to figure out how to keep it from recurring in the future.”