The Indian Hunter 

James Benney is so inspired by the East Bay's dozens of Native American sites that he published his own guidebook about them. So why do all the experts wish he hadn't?

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All sides of the issue agree that the sites are incredibly valuable, but lack consensus on the question of if and how they should be opened to the public. Benney believes that the benefits of increased awareness are too important to be overlooked, and should serve as the guiding tenet of site management. Resistance to his vision hinges on a conviction that without adequate protection — which thus far doesn't exist — the risk of site destruction is simply too great.

Benney's guidebook has earned him titles ranging from "idiot" to "vigilante," but if you ask him or his slowly growing cadre of supporters, he's just a regular guy with a love for the land. He proudly refers to himself as an old hippie and Contra Costa chauvinist. He's 57 and lived a block away from Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley in the late '60s. He grew up in small East Bay towns like Moraga, Orinda, and Lafayette, where he now lives and operates a business painting old homes. His well-worn boots, worker's jeans, and plain shirt reflect a modest demeanor, while the dirty-blond ponytail reaching the middle of his back flaunts his liberal perspective. Round shoulders droop off his tall, sturdy frame, and his speech is gentle and patient. Yet despite having done nothing illegal, his name is as notorious as a hardened criminal's among the diverse cast of enemies he has made up and down the state. Indeed, Benney declined to have his face photographed for this article, noting that "I'm already more famous than I want to be."

Still, Benney is not surprised by all the criticism the book has earned him. It was no accident that he failed to consult with archaeologists, Native Americans, or the parks district before initiating his campaign to publicize the sites. "I knew that they were going to try and stop me," he explains. "So I went ahead and did it anyway."

His underlying motivation remains a firm belief that today's residents of the East Bay have much to gain from increased knowledge of the sites and of the people who once inhabited them. "This native culture has not been adequately recognized or studied for its achievements in adapting peacefully to this land and environment," he writes in the book's introduction. Benney feels that by looking back to natives' plant and animal use, watershed protection, and population control, we will learn to advance our culture without also depleting our land. He refuses to wait for the day when these valuable teaching tools meet the same fate as thousands of Native American sites already sitting under parking lots, golf courses, highways, businesses, and homes in the East Bay.

"I've felt that, to me, the message is 'Don't let this disappear.' The first time I was out there, the spirit spoke to me," Benney said. "I want as many people as possible to know about these sites." He can't help but wonder: What good are cultural resources to people who don't know they exist? His book's answer reads loud and clear: "The need for increased public awareness and an appreciation of Native American history outweighs the need to hide some sites in order to protect them."

Recognizing the concerns of those who worry about the sites' fragility, Benney included the following note: "They should be approached and treated with the utmost reverence. ... We do not dig, or even scratch the surface. Nor should you. We'll leave that to the professional archaeologists and scientists."

However, he also argues that the looting threat will actually be reduced as the number of people who hike out to the sites increases. Responsible visitors, he says, will discourage criminal and harmful activity in the same way that daylight and busy streets deter some car thieves: "By bringing more conscious people out there, we will know about it."

Critics such as Castro don't buy it. "He may see himself as a savior, but to a lot of people he's no different than a pothunter, because they're justifying their actions in a way that's totally self-serving," he said. "He's created his own fantasy and ethical world to justify the things that he's doing." To Castro, established methods of working with lawmakers, developers, and land management agencies in a reactive capacity are not always effective, but have no viable alternative. "Until it's shown that public knowledge shows results, this is the way that best protects the site," he said.

Compounding concerns about physical damage, Castro worries that greater exposure could also threaten the sites' holistic integrity by compromising their spiritual values. So-called "New Agers" have been known to construct native shelters, build fires, and attempt to practice Indian religion on village sites. An uniformed public stomping about sacred sites could be deemed similarly damaging and disrespectful.

Benney's book also has been fiercely criticized by archaeologists, who have a vested interest in the resources' preservation for future study and are bound by law and a professional code of ethics to keep undisclosed sites hidden. "There are circumstances where it's in the public good to withhold information," said Michael Newland, staff archaeologist at Sonoma State University's Anthropological Studies Center. Newland is also the Northern California vice president for the Society for California Archaeology, a nonprofit public organization with a legislative focus, and was put in charge of monitoring the Benney situation.

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