Jessica Douglas
High Country News

In late April, at the site known as Birthing Rock near Moab, Utah, vandals defaced thousand-year-old petroglyphs, scrawling the words “white power” and other obscene graffiti, including an ejaculating penis, across the red sandstone. Only one of the boulder’s four petroglyph panels remained unscathed. The vandalism came just a few weeks after a rock climber bolted climbing routes over petroglyphs near the Sunshine Slabs, north of Utah’s Arches National Park. 

The recent acts of vandalism are a reminder of the need for greater protection and more education about public lands, Indigenous archaeologists say. “A lot of people have no clue about contemporary Indigenous peoples and their connection to archaeological resources,” Ashleigh Thompson, Red Lake Ojibwe, a doctoral candidate in archaeology at University of Arizona and an avid rock climber, said. “I think people view these (incidents) as a victimless crime, and they are not.”

When the pandemic forced Americans to shelter in place, public lands provided a much-needed refuge. But with increased visitors came an uptick in vandalism. Although overall visitation to national parks dropped in 2020, partially due to numerous park closures in the pandemic’s early months, more than 15 parks set new records. Visits to Arches National Park increased by nearly 70 percent during part of 2020 compared to previous years. 

In January 2021, visitation at Canyonlands National Park was up by 100 percent, which according to a National Park Service press release, resulted in “extended wait times to enter the park, illegal parking creating safety and resource preservation issues, and visitors walking in and along roadways to access viewpoints and trailheads, creating unsafe conditions.”

“What we’ve been seeing in Utah across all land agencies — the Park Service, the state parks, the Bureau of Land Management — is we do have an increase in tourism. And we are seeing a commensurate increase in damage to archaeological sites,” Elizabeth Hora-Cook, an archaeologist for the Utah State Historic Preservation Office, said. “And when we see that more people equals more damage, we know that the same proportion of people are not receiving the message of how to visit sites with respect.”

The Utah State Historic Preservation Office, the Bureau of Land Management and nonprofits like Friends of Cedar Mesa have campaigned to raise awareness and educate the public. Hopi archaeologist Lyle Balenquah believes there needs to be ongoing localized education about visiting archaeological sites throughout Utah. “You can’t just hold one workshop, one Zoom panel session, and call it good,” Balenquah said. “There’s always new people coming into these sports and being introduced to the regions in general. There has to be people out in the field speaking to people as much as possible.” 

But even when educational resources are available and widely promoted, the information doesn’t always reach its intended audience. Tourists may not know how to visit archaeological sites respectfully.

When rock climber Richard Gilbert scaled Sunshine Slab, he thought the petroglyphs he bolted over were just modern-day graffiti. In a story from Climbing Magazine, Gilbert took a photo of the three routes he had bolted and posted the route information on Mountain Project, a website that catalogs climbing routes across the world. One of the captions read, “Graffiti — There is a good amount of graffiti on this route, PLEASE do NOT add to it!”

Some non-Natives fail to understand the importance of places like Birthing Rock and Sunshine Slab because they have no idea what the sites mean to Indigenous people, Angelo Baca (Diné/Hopi), a doctoral student in anthropology at New York University, said. From an Indigenous perspective, petroglyphs are seen as relatives. “They’re alive. They have their own spirit and they have their own agency and should be respected,” said Baca, who is also the cultural resource coordinator for Utah Diné Bikéyah, a nonprofit that strives to preserve and protect the cultural and natural resources of the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute and Uintah Ouray Ute tribes. 

Much of the land in Utah, as in many Western states, is owned by the federal government. When an act of vandalism occurs, the complex web of federal, state and private ownership leaves tribes with few means to pursue a legal case, said Clark Tenakhongva, vice chairman of the Hopi Tribe and co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. As a result, he said, perpetrators are rarely held accountable. “These are the obstacles that we continuously have to fight.”

Often there is a disconnect between the way Indigenous people and non-Native people view and experience the landscape, Thompson said. “There is a settler-colonial attitude that not just climbers, but outdoor recreational hikers and mountain bikers, have, that make them feel entitled to claim whatever they want, regardless of climbing bans and what the Indigenous peoples in those areas think or want.” Many non-Native visitors don’t realize that the public lands they enjoy were created at the expense of the original inhabitants, who were forcibly evicted, Thompson said. “Indigenous people have been murdered, battled, and removed, so that settlers could have access to these lands.”

The BLM is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the individual(s) responsible for the vandalism. If you have any information concerning this vandalism, please contact BLM Law Enforcement at 435-259-2131 or 800-722-3998. You can remain anonymous.

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Jessica Douglas is an editorial fellow at High Country News and a member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians. Email her at jessica.douglas@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor. Follow her on Twitter @Jessicadd29_