Letters for the week of October 31 

Readers sound off on the Native American ruins controversy.

"The Indian Hunter," Feature, 10/3

Benney is Wrong
Is James Benney's "awe" justification for his actions? No doubt those who stood in front of Geronimo's cage at the World's Fair in 1904 also felt awe. If Benney — or anyone — wants to learn about native culture, how about aligning with real-life Ohlone people who are struggling to save their sacred sites from devastation around the Bay, or get their ancestor's remains out from a basement in a museum at UC Berkeley, or get recognition from the United States government as a people? That's right: The very people whose flesh, blood, and bones have come from this soil for thousands of years and countless generations, DO NOT OFFICIALLY EXIST according to the federal government. A supporter of Benney said, "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. I realize it's a two-edged sword, but I always hope for the best in people." Well, those people who were here before "us" are STILL here; and, while their ancestors were "hoping for the best in people," they have learned to expect the worst. (Is it 342 broken treaties? I forget.) Indeed we have proved them right, once again.
Amy Hutto, Oakland

You're His Accomplice
What is the effect of this article? The stated goal is informational, but isn't that the issue here? By giving more publicity to a book that is clearly not in the interests of native peoples nor the park service, doesn't this article simply create more trouble? It seems obvious that Mr. Benney does not represent any real constituency other than himself and has no right to take matters into his own hands. If he wants to protect these sites, then he should provide the resources to do so, or help others to do so. By publishing this article, the Express has overstepped the bounds of journalistic ethics and has become a willful accomplice. The fact that disclosure of these sites, by people who are not supposed to know about them in the first place, is legal merely draws attention to a loophole that thus far has not been exploited. The fact that this loophole exists at all is a significant reminder of the low level of respect accorded Native-American interests. This article is a shameful reminder of a long and continuing pattern of abuse directed at Native Americans.
Randall Potts, Oakland

Benney Doesn't Know Best
I would like to respond to Nate Seltenrich's recent article, "The Indian Hunter," published in your October 3 edition. Several of the individuals quoted were quite vocal in requesting that the article not be run at all so as not to bring further attention to Mr. Benney's book. One of the online comments stated that "by publishing this article, the Express has overstepped the bounds of journalistic ethics and has become a willful accomplice." I have to agree and would at least like to try to mitigate some of the damage done. There's no getting around the complete offensiveness of the article title, and while it is not my place to speak for the local native community, I cannot help but regret the wording. I appreciate Mr. Seltenrich's efforts to remain unbiased and to refrain from publishing specific location information or the title of the book, but overall the effort is as misguided as Benney's.

First, let me say that "daylighting" bedrock mortar complexes, as Mr. Benney calls it, is vandalism. Mortar cups may contain microscopic food remains that could tell us a lot regarding ancient foodways of the tribal groups using the mortars — what plant foods they ate, the times of year they were there, and whether certain types of rock were used to process certain types of foods. By digging these mortar cups out he is destroying this important piece of information and there's no way to get it back. The effect on the site is no different than looting. Please, leave the mortar cups alone.

Second, Mr. Benney has a complete misunderstanding of today's political and economic climate if he thinks that local park agencies — or any agency — has the funding to put protective fencing around any of these sites, much less the round-the-clock security that they would actually require to keep them protected. Even then they wouldn't be safe — I have seen our own private security guards loot our sites during excavations. There is no truly protective measure that the agencies could employ even if with unlimited funding. The confidentiality of site location is a compromise that the general public has accepted in order to keep these sites safe.

Third, Mr. Benney's efforts to daylight sites as a response to other sites being destroyed on construction projects unfortunately shows his ignorance of the compliance process. As part of development, both state and federal law allow archaeological sites to be destroyed if they have been found to either not be significant resources, or, if significant, they have been excavated and had their important data recovered. In situations where the site has important values to the local Native-American community, projects can be redesigned, moved, or compromises made to protect those values. An archaeological site can be identified during predevelopment survey by a competent and ethical archaeologist with the complete cooperation of an official tribal representative, excavated, and ultimately destroyed without Mr. Benney ever knowing about it. Again, it is an issue of confidentiality — no one wants looters jumping the fence and stealing artifacts before they can be studied, so the site locations and study are not available for public review. I concur with Mr. Benney that, without a doubt, destruction is occurring illegally on archaeological sites as part of development, but this shows the need for stronger enforcement of environmental law — Mr. Benney's efforts to daylight sites will have no effect on this process.

Finally, if we take Mr. Benney at his word, his concern stems from his frustration that these sites aren't being studied and that other sites are being destroyed because people are unaware of the archaeological history of the region. He clearly feels a visceral connection with the sites, and this is good; as an archaeologist, I too have a visceral connection with the sites and hope that the public at large feels the same about them.

However, while I cannot speak for the native community, I know from several individuals that his efforts are a direct affront to how they feel about the protection of and reverence for their direct ancestral heritage. His efforts risk everyone else's ability to have that same visceral reaction. Despite what he says, the sites are being studied, the agencies are aware that the sites are out there, and the tribes are involved in the process. As Ms. Ortiz describes in the article, sites are being made available for public visits under certain circumstances — the park officials know what they are doing and should be praised for striking a good compromise. I'm sorry that Mr. Benney is out of the loop, but there's a reason for that: so that misguided people don't publish books on site locations enabling looters to steal artifacts.

By further promoting the book, which your article does by merely bringing it to the public's attention, the East Bay Express is only making matters worse. I wholeheartedly agree that these are important topics — questions regarding who has the right to interpret the past, the destruction of sites as part of regional development, the effects of looting on our shared heritage, and public access to local areas of historical importance. These topics could have been handled more effectively by addressing them directly on a broader level rather than giving this book free publicity.
Michael Newland, Northern California vice president, Society for California Archaeology

Benney is Right
I really enjoyed your article on "The Indian Hunter." It's difficult to present a balance, but you succeeded in presenting both sides clearly. My interpretation — and I certainly respect other possibilities — is that Benney is right.

Though it isn't without risk, exposure to these sites can more broadly and permanently awaken an ethic of preservation through broader public appreciation of the native cultures and their historic values. This cannot be achieved by hiding the experience of these sites. Fact is, hiding brings different risks: Sooner or later, the artifacts will be threatened if not by vandals then by developers, but who will care when the time comes to protect the artifacts if no one has seen them?


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