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Myers: Respecting the future of the past

In 1991-92, I spent a month in Spain over Christmas and New Year’s. Most of my time was spent in a town called Algeciras across the Bay of Algeciras from Gibraltar.

One of the things I found most striking about life there was that graffiti was much more socially acceptable than in the United States. It was a form of political protest and was without the same kind of stigma it has here. But even more noticeable was that while there was graffiti all over modern buildings, an aqueduct built in the 1700s that ran through town was completely untouched.

It was as though the town’s history was held in special regard.

It contrasted sharply with Nevada, where for as long as I could remember, people had been looting or vandalizing both tribal and white sites. The discovery of vandalism at an Esmeralda County petroglyph site last month is the latest in a long series. While the Spanish may have an inherent respect for their past, it is not something we learn here.

Not long before I went to Spain, a Nevada tourism director told me his agency was being careful about publicizing the state’s older boot hills. He had heard tales of Nevada headstones decorating San Francisco living rooms.

Not long after I returned from Spain, the desecration of a Paiute burial site in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert came to light.

Jack Lee Harelson and his former wife Pamela Ralph had spent years since the 1980s digging up a site on Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, damaging it so badly it had little use for research purposes any more.

Oregon police seized more than 2,000 artifacts from Harelson’s home in that state, including the headless bodies of two tribal children that Harelson had buried in his yard. The bodies had been complete when they were removed from the original site, and the heads have never been recovered. Harelson was found guilty of abuse of a corpse and possession of state property. Harelson was fined $20,000 and given a token month’s jail sentence.

Recapture Canyon in Utah, once a 13th century site of Puebloans, their cliff dwellings and kivas, was closed by federal officials to protect it from motor vehicle use in 2007.

Its future has been in limbo because the Bureau of Land Management’s resource limitations have delayed processing of paperwork— though inertia could also be a cause of failure to resolve the matter, akin to the 20-year delay by BLM to bring Cliven Bundy’s case to a head. Local officials led an all-terrain vehicle protest ride to damage the Recapture site and was convicted of conspiring to use off-road vehicles on public lands closed to them, and operation of off-road vehicles on public lands closed to them.

They were also ordered to pay for damage to the land. A political motive for desecration of history is no more worthy than a mercenary motive.

These kinds of incidents have become so common on public lands that dealing with them is becoming more and more difficult. Last month the Washington Post reported on Western desecrations:

“There have been six confirmed looting incidents in the past six months, and at least two dozen over the past five years. In one, a vandal used a rock saw to remove a petroglyph; in one this year someone dug up a pristine ceremonial chamber, or kiva, that had never been professionally excavated.

Although the BLM has allocated $400,000 over two years to stabilize 10 archeological sites and trained about 20 people to serve as volunteer ‘site stewards,’ it employs just two law enforcement officers to patrol 1.8 million acres.”

There are those who consider themselves entitled to ravage these sites, and some politicians pander to that sentiment. U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah told the Post, “I would hope that my fellow Utahans would not use violence, but there are some deeply held positions that cannot just be ignored.” A stronger leader would have skipped the second half of that sentence.

Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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