The Ties that Bind

I’m just catching up with this story from the Salt Lake Tribune:

During [Utah] Gov. Gary Herbert’s visit to Blanding, one of the poorest regions of the state, residents pleaded with him to keep open the Edge of the Cedars Museum State Park.

The ancestral Puebloan site and official archaeological repository houses one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of Pueblo, Navajo and Ute artifacts. It also is one of five state parks recommended for closure by legislative auditors because of budget concerns.

This would be tragic for archaeology. I doubt Herbert sees it that way.

But because I’ve been to Blanding and this museum, I thought I’d share an anecdote. First, let me return to the Salt Lake Tribune article, specifically the lede:

Residents in the vast southeastern Utah outback that once teemed with pre-Columbian Americans worry the heritage and rich culture of their homeland will be stolen twice: once by black-market American Indian-relic peddlers, and then by the state of Utah.

Heh. My Utah readers have an inkling of what’s coming.

So I was still living in Colorado in the summer of 2009 when news broke of a splashy federal sting operation that collared 24 archaeology looters. Sixteen of them were Blanding residents.

I couldn’t get there fast enough. Here’s the story I ended up writing for Science and an interview I did with an archaeologist who lives in Blanding. You can catch up with those pieces later. Meanwhile, stay with me for a minute.

I got to Blanding a few weeks after the big bust, and just after the town doctor, one of the arrested suspects, killed himself. The mood was tense and angry. The first thing I did when I drove into town was stop off at the Visitor’s Center and Pioneer Museum.  An elderly white-haired man stepped out from behind a desk after I walked in. With a frozen smile and in a croaking voice he asked, “What’s your destination?” It was not an unusual question. Blanding is close to many of southern Utah’s red-rock scenic gems, like Arches National Park.

So I exchanged small talk with the friendly old man. His name was Harold Lyman. But he got tight-lipped when I started asking about the arrests. This seemed understandable, given the recent tragic turn of events.

Later on, I learned that lyman was a pillar in the community. For 50 years he’d been a tireless promoter of southern Utah’s unique tourist attractions. It was Lyman who recognized the economic value of Blanding’s proximity to the region’s recreational pursuits. He had helped re-brand Blanding as the “Base Camp to Adventure.” Lyman also had helped create Trail of the Ancients, a national scenic byway in southeastern Utah that rolls past ancient Pueblo Indian ruins. And he had a hand in establishing Edge of the Cedars Museum State Park.

On May 15, 2009, in recognition of these achievements, Lyman was inducted into the Utah Tourism Hall of Fame. Three weeks later, 150 FBI agents descended on Blanding. As national media stories all noted, the 78 year-old Lyman was among 16 Blanding residents arrested for looting archaeological treasures from American Indian burial sites.

When I visited Edge of the Cedars Museum during my trip, I learned that a good many artifacts housed there were once the ill-gotten booty of Blanding residents, which had been recovered during another notorious federal raid in 1986. In fact, the town’s grave digging history goes back many decades. As Craig Childs wrote in this High Country News article, “pothunting has been a pastime for generations” in Blanding. He described the tradition:

Sunday picnics included shovels. Kids rifled through spoil piles for beads or pretty potsherds, while the older ones dug craters into the red soil. For some it was a competition to see who could find the most beautiful or the most curious object. A painted 11th century olla in perfect condition was worth monumental bragging rights in town. Some sold the artifacts, and some kept them, treasuring them as mementos.

I hope the Edge of the Cedars Museum doesn’t close. As for the Blanding townfolk who are reportedly worried about losing this Native American heritage, well, they’ve always had a special connection to it.

One Response to “The Ties that Bind”

  1. Kendra says:

    Too bad, hardly anyone, in this case, no one, comments on posts like these. Just to let you know I do appreciate them.

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