Thirty-six years ago, several officials raised ethical questions about Navajos in San Juan County having to pay $45,000 for 860 pieces of ancient American Indian artifacts to pot hunters who had amassed the collection of pottery, tools and other relics.
The collection was turned over to the Edge of the Cedars State Park museum in Blanding for safekeeping, although the Navajos, not the state, own it. Now that the museum's existence is threatened by legislative-mandated budget cuts that could force closures of several state parks, the Navajo-owned collection could be in peril.
Gov. Gary Herbert, who visited the museum during a "jobs tour" in rural Utah several months ago, has proposed a $2.9 million supplemental appropriation to keep the parks open. The Legislature might go along with the governor after making its point about the need to trim state spending.
But the threat of closures, and the question of what would become of sacred relics belonging to an already exploited population, renews ethical questions posed by the whole issue of American Indians having to purchase what belonged to them in the first place.
The relics were paid for from the Navajo Oil Trust Fund, whose source is oil and gas royalties from Navajo lands. The fund is for the benefit of the Navajo residents in the area.
At the time, some questioned why money from a fund to benefit Navajos had to be spent to retrieve their ancient heritage from pot hunters.
Years later, a number of Anglo pot hunters were charged with felonies for illegally poaching ancient relics from public land during the early 1990s. In 2009, 26 people were arrested for taking artifacts from federal lands in southeastern Utah.
The 860 pieces, which were purchased by the Utah Navajo Development Council, are kept in a separate area from the approximately half million pieces housed at the state-owned museum. The relics in that room are not owned by the state, but by all the Navajos in that area the beneficiaries of the Navajo Development Council.
Shortly after the purchase, Southern Utah State University anthropology department chairman Richard Thompson said he believed the purchase of the artifacts "encouraged further destruction of archeological sites." Larry Teeter, BLM recreation specialist, said he was concerned about the transaction on the grounds of ethics. And Bruce Louthan, district archeologist for the BLM, said the local Navajo group may have purchased the relics out of fear the Anglo pot hunters would sell them to a group out of state.
Teri Paul, director of the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum, said there is no facility in the area capable of safely storing, not to mention displaying, the special collection held so dear to the American Indians that they spent money from their oil royalties to preserve it.
The possible closure of the museum is further complicated by an entanglement of contracts with the federal government for storage and display of the relics harvested for preservation.
It's just another issue to look at during the debate on state spending and a reminder that cutting budgets is not as simple as it might seem on the surface.