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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Benney doesn't think so. He cites a fundamental difference in sensitivity between pictographs and bedrock mortars. Pictographs can be destroyed in minutes by a single human hand, he admits, but a mortar is a more permanent hole in solid rock. This distinction was enough to convince Benney not to provide GPS coordinates for the two pictograph sites included in his book. One is located in the Vasco territory, and the other is so remote and well hidden that it took Benney and a friend four full days of hiking to find it. "If you stumble upon it, try not to even breathe on it," he writes above its entry in the book. "Be aware."

Pictographs aside, Benney believes the pervasive fear of looting is vastly overblown — merely a straw-man argument designed to rally support for the opposing view while painting Benney as a careless fool. Parks employee Beverly Ortiz insists the threat is real, and much more so than Benney will admit. There have been incidents in the East Bay where mortar sites have been dug up, she says, as well as one occasion where a large rock containing mortars was lifted out of the ground and removed altogether.

If anyone is familiar with pothunting in the United States today, it's Karl Kilguss. He is majority owner and operator of the United States' largest online Indian artifact marketplace, Cincinnati-based Arrowheads.com. Kilguss recognizes the bad rap that artifact collectors have earned, but insists that all but a dwindling population of rogue traders, who are shunned by the rest of the community, abide by a strict code of ethics. "There's a history involved that's not so great," he said. "But we know better now."

Kilguss says that pothunting is not as rampant or as attractive these days as some may make it sound. For one, it's hard work. Potential thieves must not only haul a shovel out to a remote site undetected, but must then dig at least a couple of feet down, sift through large amounts of earth, and haul back whatever they've found — if anything. Then they'll have a hard time making much profit from their efforts. Because of increased supply and access to quality artifacts through sites like Kilguss', artifacts don't fetch the kind of money they once did. "The days of people digging artifacts and making a ton of money are over," he said. "Anyone that's doing this to make money, they've got a long road ahead. It's a difficult way for a criminal to make money. It's so much easier to hold up a 7-Eleven."

According to Kilguss, 90 percent of all arrowheads sell for $25 to $125. The finest, sharpest arrowhead in perfect condition could fetch as much as $1,000, but there are very few of these around even in the ground. Weathering and cattle grazing cause most buried arrowheads to be chipped or cracked, vastly reducing their value. Still, Kilguss concedes, flea markets and online auction sites — including eBay and unscrupulous artifact-specific sites often sell illegally obtained pieces and provide a market for artifacts acquired through pothunting. "They won't hesitate to sell anything they can," he said. "They don't care about history. They care about money."


Although Benney's opponents vastly outnumber his supporters, his book has managed to generate a small measure of momentum. Marilyn Russell, who retired after 33 years of teaching at Livermore High School, received it as a gift from a friend. As a teacher, she led students on field trips to some of the sites that Benney highlights, including the large village site he wants to develop. "I think it's really important to realize that there were people here before us who treasured the land and lived in harmony with the landscape," she said. "I realize it's a two-edged sword, but I always hope for the best in people."

Russell is reluctant to let a few bad seeds impede upon everyone else's freedom. "Those impacts, as destructive as they are ... you're letting the minority, or the criminal, or the dark side, influence the people that are good," she said. "Educationally, you have to take risks."

Benney's most public backer is a friend he's known since high school. Benney and Bob Bardell grew up in Orinda and attended Miramonte High School together, where one of their favorite activities was roaming the East Bay hills. Many years later, once Benney got Bardell hooked on Native American history, Bardell joined Benney's band of explorers and the two began to go out frequently in search of sites.

When Benney proposed the idea for his book, Bardell backed him. "I thought it was a great idea," he said. "The stuff's on public land, and the public should be out there enjoying it. I'm a taxpayer for the parks and other public entities, and I think they have a stewardship obligation unto the land, but to my mind that doesn't extend to keeping places secret from people." Bardell argues that the general public has a right, a duty even, to experience firsthand the East Bay's shared heritage and rich cultural history.

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