9 Tips for Preserving Important Sacred Sites

Courtesy Jonathan Bailey - These paintings, attributed to the Barrier Canyon Tradition, were conceived well over 3,000 years ago. They were permanently damaged and defaced in 2009.

9 Tips for Preserving Important Sacred Sites

As a child I would climb in the back of a pickup truck that took me to a house nestled between walls of cheat grass and Russian thistle. There, the man was, with the blue eyes that overstepped the frame of his weathered face. He had always brought something, placed it in my palm, and sent it back in the pockets of my second-hand jeans. He was a flint-knapper, regularly sending me home with his world-class projectile points that he had crafted from the rows of hammer stones and antler fragments that lined his driveway, or given me stones that I had never seen within the deserts of Utah.

This day, he limped to the closet tucked in the narrow hallway of his mobile home, and pulled a thin fragment of paper from the pocket of his denim jacket. It was an illustration of ancient paintings, or pictographs, with the date 1934 scrawled into the margins. He exhaled as I looked over the image, admitting that he had never known the artist, nor had he ever been able to rediscover the images. It was, he claimed, something he had always wanted to believe was real. He knew that, at his age, he would never walk up to the cliff wall adorned with those paintings, but he wanted, for one time in his life, to know that the masterpiece was more than legend.

In five years, the panel found its way to me, tucked in an alcove overlooking tilted layers of Navajo and Wingate sandstone. They were of the Barrier Canyon Style tradition, dating back some 3,000 years ago, struck in blood-red ochre as brilliant as the day they were painted. In the corners, I looked into the eyes of the shadows—the apparitions—conceived with ovular eye sockets devoid of pigment, outlined in repetition to enhance the effect. Here, in this place, one could know anything. Hear everything. Stories were mirrored through canyon walls, echoed into the ears of the one who kneel at his feet. Words were carried from canyon walls a half-mile away, an unusual acoustical phenomenon that whispered the distant language of this landscape back to you. You would know of anyone or anything that entered this canyon long before it knew of you.

On the floor of the alcove, several figures were painted in a salmon hue, post-dating the other imagery by a couple thousand years, originating from an individual around the 10th century. I would have stayed longer had I known it would be the last time I would see these sacred images whole. Complete. I called the man that night, unaware that several of the paintings that I saw that day would vanish indefinitely.

It first came in the form of a casual conversation. I was told that the site had been located by someone who had reported it to a guidebook author. The location of the sensitive site was now publicly accessible. Little by little, the people came.

A year or two later, I revisited the site with Jim Keele, an Emery High School teacher and artist who made, not only good company, but a skilled hiking companion. Together, we regularly explored the depths of the unknown in Utah’s canyon country. As we approached the alcove, my heart dropped. “EFRA” was now carved in large, bulky letters over the delicate wings of a painted bird. I placed my feet in the alcove, realizing the full extent of the damage. The floor mural was almost entirely absent. Stolen. The entire chapel, desecrated.​

Courtesy Jonathan Bailey - One of the many sites frequently desecrated in 2015.

This was the beginning. Now, sites are plundered by the masses. In Utah, there has been a thousand percent increase in cases of vandalism and looting. I have seen the bones of children torn apart with ATV tracks molded over their skulls. This is a plea. We need the enforcement of antiquity laws, educated citizens, good stewards, and land management that grows with the increasing issues of location disclosure and recognizes the cumulative impacts of their decisions, such as increasing access to sensitive and sacred sites. I do not view these places, or these lands, as “public lands,” as I do not believe that they are ours to dispose of. We are caretakers—stewards. These places are painted and carved into the hearts and minds of so many. It is my fundamental belief that this past deserves a future.

Please, listen. There are ways to protect sacred sites. Below are 9 tips for saving them:

Do not write on, touch, fire at, remove, tamper with, or attempt to repair any Native American site.

Do not apply anything, including water, to any Native American site.

Do not climb or sit on structural walls.

Use utmost caution when disclosing unknown or little-known sites. Even well-established bloggers, photographers, and otherwise respectful visitors can cause cumulative impacts. Every person told brings an average of three more individuals to the site. If you wouldn’t trust them with your credit card number, don’t give them irreplaceable pieces of the past.

Use caution when posting photographs of unknown or little-known sites. Associated material such as topography near the site, or adjacent sites, may reveal its location to others. Also, make sure your images aren’t geotagged, especially if you are using a smartphone.

Never remove any artifacts.

Stay on designated routes.

Report any new vandalism to the respective land manager.

Stay engaged with preservation and encourage others to practice good stewardship.

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