Native lawmakers have called for a criminal probe of bulldozed archaeological sites, actions that have led to the suspension of Arizona State Parks Director Sue Black and her top deputy. The state’s Attorney General’s Office has also launched a criminal investigation.
Allegations are that under Parks Director Sue Black’s supervision, agency development workers at Lake Havasu State Park dug up ancient stone tools as well as broken stones used in the making of weapons and larger stones possibly used as grinding devices for seeds.
In another instance at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, artifacts, including what was described as ‘lithic tools’, were exposed in an allegedly unauthorized and unmonitored dig at an archaeological site there.
In a department email, Parks Chief of Operations Gilbert Davidson announced: “While our review continues, we made the determination that it is appropriate to place the director on administrative leave to preserve the integrity of the process.”
The director’s resume is not without stain as she was previously accused of berating and mistreating some of her employees, a charge that a state investigation found without merit, albeit some “problems with general management practices” where the Governor’s Chief of Operations “discussed those concerns and then moved on.”
Although Director Black will continue to receive her $170,000 annual salary and Deputy Director Jim Keegan will still get his $120,000 per annum, the two are in legal limbo now after allegations that state land was developed without regard for laws protecting archeological sites sensitive to Native Americans.
Arizona Democratic Senator Jamescita Mae Peshlakai (Navajo) along with Democratic Representatives Eric Deschennie and Wenona Benally (Dine) and Sally Ann Gonzales (Pascua Yaqui) initially asked that the two parks officials resign and that alleged violations of the state Antiquities Act be investigated in connection with the purported unearthing of ancient stone tools, some dating back 12,000 years, and irreversible damage to sites at Lake Havasu State Park.
Former Parks Department employee, archaeologist Dr. Will Russell, made the allegations of damaged antiquities and violations of state regulations, specifically the Arizona Antiquities Act, the State Historic Preservation Act, and federal law under the National Historic Preservation Act --- all of which require that before any ground disturbing activity can happen, there needs to be consideration of the impact of that undertaking on archeological and historic resources.
“Dozens of archaeological sites have been wrecked in violation of the law,” according to Russell, speaking to The Arizona Republic.
Events such as this come under the purview of Dr. Patrick Lyons, Director of the Arizona State Museum, where reviews are conducted to mitigate damage of archeological sites. “If sites are to be harmed, there needs to be a process where stakeholders try to figure out ways to avoid as much damage as possible,” Lyons says. “If one or more sites will be damaged or destroyed, plans need to be made to recover as much information as can be retrieved from the sites to be damaged.”
Land at Havasu Riviera State Park that was bulldozed. Photo from Arizona State Parks Department documents, posted in AZ Central.com
Was that done in the cases in question? “We’re still in the beginning stages of talking with several parties involved,” he says. “The only specific information I have at this point is related to the Lake Havasu State Park site and in that case, we have not been able to locate any records indicating treatment of that site before it was damaged. I’m not in a position to answer whether this was a mistake or a blatant disregard of process because there is an investigation underway and it would not be right to talk further at this time.”
Dr. Lyons acknowledged the special sensitivity of Native Americans in cases such as this. “While many people of all backgrounds value and are good stewards of our archeological and historical records, Native peoples have a special relationship, not an abstract one, with ancient people. In their case, it may be a lineal or familial or cultural affiliation because the past may involve real ancestors. There is a personal, emotional connection where damage to archaeological records is involved. One way to look at it is that it’s destroying the unwritten history of their people, affecting real human beings who have descendents, ancestors who need to be cared for in a respectful and dignified way.”
That’s the contention of Senator Peshlakai and her Native colleagues who see the seriousness of the issue as meriting jail time. “Arizona should set an example of what should be done in cases like this,” she says. “I know of people who have been prosecuted and thrown in jail for spray painting petroglyphs and her deliberate actions are on a much larger scale.
“Suspending her merely allows her to walk away with a slap on the wrist and suspending her with pay just amounts to a paid vacation. We need to make sure she is brought to justice and that would include incarceration. Her actions were deliberate and criminal and the Attorney General’s investigation should be transparent with a report given to the public, the legislature, and the Indigenous People’s Caucus,” said Peshlakai.
“Her abuse of the trust of Arizona’s people has violated all 22 tribes in the state. Her blatant disregard of indigenous people who love their past and want to protect the sanctity of these sites is egregious and deserves to be punished. The least she could do would be to issue a public apology --- from behind bars.”