Native Americans' sacred rock engravings stolen from US federal land

Thieves used power saws to cut out depictions of deer, rattlesnakes, and hunters from cliff face

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 November, 2012, 4:08am

Ancient hunters and gatherers etched vivid engravings on cliffs in California's Eastern Sierra that withstood winds, flash floods and earthquakes for more than 3,500 years. Thieves needed only a few hours to cut them down with power saws and haul them away.

Federal authorities say at least four engravings have been taken from the site. A fifth was defaced with deep saw cuts on three sides. A sixth had been removed and broken during the theft, then left propped against a boulder near a visitor parking lot.

Dozens of other engravings were scarred by hammer strikes and saw cuts.

"The individuals who did this were not surgeons, they were smashing and grabbing," US Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Greg Haverstock said last week as he examined the damage.

"This was the worst act of vandalism ever seen" on the 300,000 hectares of public land managed by the BLM field office in Bishop, he said.

The theft required extraordinary effort: ladders, electric generators and stone-cutting saws had to be driven into the remote and arid high desert site near Bishop.

Thieves gouged holes in the rock and sheared off slabs that were up to five metres above ground and 60cm high and wide. Visitors discovered the theft and reported it to the BLM in October.

BLM field office manager Bernadette Lovato delivered the bad news to Paiute-Shoshone tribal leaders in Bishop.

"It was the toughest telephone call I ever had to make," Lovato said. "Their culture and spiritual beliefs had been horribly violated. We will do everything in our power to bring those pieces back."

The region is known as Volcanic Tableland. It is held sacred by native Americans whose ancestors adorned hundreds of lava boulders with spiritual renderings: concentric circles, deer, rattlesnakes, bighorn sheep, and hunters with bows and arrows.

For generations, members of the Paiute-Shoshone tribe and whites have lived side by side, but not together in Bishop.

But desecration of the site, which native Americans still use in spiritual ceremonies, has forced reservation officials and US authorities to come together and ask a tough question: Can further vandalism be prevented?

"How do we manage fragile resources that have survived as much as 10,000 years but can be destroyed in an instant?" asked archaeologist David Whitley, who in 2000 wrote the nomination that succeeded in getting the site listed on the National Register of Historic Places. "Do we keep them secret in hopes that no one vandalises them? Or, do we open them to the public so that visitors can serve as stewards of the resources?"

The easy answer is to police the site and others listed under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. But that's not possible given the condition of cash-strapped federal lands agencies, authorities said.

Authorities said the engravings are not worth a great deal on the illicit market, perhaps as little as US$500 (HK$3,875) to US$1,500 each. But they are priceless to native Americans, who regard the massive tableaux as a window into the souls of their ancestors.

The BLM is offering a US$1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the thieves. Damaging or removing the engravings is a felony. First-time offenders can be imprisoned for up to one year and fined as much as US$20,000. Second-time offenders can be imprisoned up to five years.