In which Americans celebrate their traditional regard for Native culture

Damaged petroglyph


Happy Thanksgiving from those of us in the United States! It’s a day in which we Estadounidenses traditionally gather to celebrate the debt of gratitude we owe the original inhabitants of the land for helping the first European colonists survive. The remembrance takes many forms. Most commonly, we commemorate our Native cousins by not paying any attention to them at all, though on occasion we note their contributions by red-baiting their allies. And every once in a while, we celebrate this holiday by destroying irreplaceable Native ceremonial art dating back to a time contemporaneous with the European Bronze Age.

From my KCET story linked above:

The petroglyphs are thought to be as much as 3,500 years old, and still play an important role in the cultural life of the Owens Valley Paiute and Shoshone people. Paiute tribal historic preservation officer Raymond Andrews told Los Angeles Times reporter Louis Sahagun this week that the vandalized petroglyphs are regularly visited by modern-day Native people of the Eastern Sierra. “We still use this sacred place as a kind of church to educate tribal members and children about our historical and spiritual connections. So, our tribal elders are appalled by what happened here.”

According to the BLM, the vandals drove ladders, power saws, and portable generators to the site to attempt to remove the petroglyphs. Four were apparently removed successfully. A fifth, shown above, was damaged by saw cuts but left in place: a sixth was broken after removal and left on site. BLM rangers also reported hammer damage to dozens of nearby petroglyphs.

You don’t have to buy into Paiute/Shoshone religious beliefs to find an act like this appalling, just as you wouldn’t need to be a Magdalenian animist to get pissed off if someone took a crowbar to the Megaloceros paintings at Lascaux. A couple years ago a couple of slack-jawed nitwits took their paintball guns into a canyon in southern Nevada that figures prominently in the origin myths of a number of Native people along the lower Colorado River. Said nitwits defaced a number of petroglyph panels there. One doesn’t have to actually believe that Mastamho the creator’s son dug the Colorado out of the desert sands with his walking stick and sent the local tribes off in different directions to feel grief and anger at that damage to culturally significant artwork.

I won’t venture a guess as to the motivation of the thieves, though I suspect — to steal a joke from Professor Bérubé — a primitive form of outrage influenced by what the Greeks called μεθαμφεταμινε. Whatever their motivation, they need to be found and corrected before they do it again. The desert has a deep human history every bit as fascinating and inspiring as its natural history. Damaging it damages our common heritage. On the off chance a reader here has a friend of a friend who knows something, the BLM and the local Tribal government have set up a reward for info.


  1. coozoe says

    I don’t acknowledge this day as a holiday but a remembrance of the destruction of this country’s indigenous people. Last year Google had a link to a website describing the real history of this day. It was written by a Native American and I wish they had linked to it again today.

  2. bryanfeir says

    Gah. Though I agree with Nemo; given that the picture shows a case of somebody obviously attempting to extract the petroglyph in one piece, somebody trying to sell it to unscrupulous art collectors seems the likely guess. Just straight vandalism wouldn’t have been that precise in cutting around it.

    I’ve seen some nice petroglyphs not far from my grandparents’ old place at Christina Lake in British Columbia. Fortunately, a lot of them are high enough up the rock wall that either you have to hang from a rope to get at them, or you have to wait until all the snow melt in the spring raises the level of the lake to get anywhere even close to them.

  3. alektorophile says

    Bastards. Most likely just another case of cultural and historical heritage becoming a casualty of the antiquities market. As long as you have idiots with too much money and no conscience wanting to own old stuff you’ll have criminals willing to go out and procure it for them and utterly destroy archaeological sites in the process. Ban the sale of antiquities. The latter shouldn’t be considered as just another resource to be exploited for monetary gain in the first place.


    “Unscrupulous art/antiquities collectors”? Is there any other kind? I don’t think any of them really cares where objects came from, as long as they get to own them.

  4. Crip Dyke, MQ, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    I have never been happier to be nearly incompetent at Greek.

    The “nearly” allows me to read the letters. The incompetence prevents me from getting bogged down in questions as to the meaning of that word quite foreign to the language.

  5. opposablethumbs says

    I suppose as long as there are pseudo-sophisticated scum around with more money than morals who want to buy stolen antiquities and artifacts there’s a motive to vandalise precious archaeological sites. I hope these arseholes get found and arrested.

    Took me a moment to get the Greek reference there, though. I suppose that makes the thieves high-handed highjackers.

  6. says

    Alethea, yes, we do. The National Day of Mourning has been in place since the 70s.

    The thanksgiving myth that still holds precedence in the U.S. is a load of manure. The first official “Day of Thanksgiving” was proclaimed in 1637 by Governor Winthrop. He did so to celebrate the safe return of men from the Massachusetts Bay Colony who had gone to Mystic, Connecticut to participate in the massacre of over 700 Pequot women, children, and men. Hardly a reason for Natives to celebrate.

  7. opposablethumbs says

    Ah, snap, Crip Dyke! (except I’m effectively completely incompetent at Greek :-) )

  8. says

    I’d assume the intent was to sell them to unscrupulous art/antiquities collectors.

    In the one case, possibly. However, that’s not why assholes deface sacred places and things every year. That’s all about them managing to be offended that some of us survived.

  9. says

    Last year Google had a link to a website describing the real history of this day. It was written by a Native American and I wish they had linked to it again today.

    This page is down, but here’s a cached version. It breaks down a lot of the Thanksgiving myths. I’m not sure if this is the one you were thinking of. Regardless, the history is absolutely repulsive.

    Caine is entirely correct. Sure, some of this destruction is because of people trying to sell antiquities. Most of it is simply malicious assholery.

  10. steve oberski says


    Every american who arrived after 1492 should be disgusted with themselves.

    Well, I’m disgusted with you, is that a good start ?

    What say we try to be disgusted at our own bad behaviour, whatever it may be, and while we may find certain behaviours of our ancestors disgusting, not take on that extra load of vicarious guilt in some sort of masturbatory orgy of self flagellation.

    Unless that’s what turns your crank and scratches your itch, in which case flail away.

  11. joed says

    Tragic loss. Hopefully the thieves are found, tried and sent to prison for a long time.
    I am not optimistic.

  12. says

    I wouldn’t be surprised if whatever thought process resulted in the damage and destruction of these artifacts was behind the odd seal and dolphin murders that pop up here and there. I suspect the whole point is drunken imbeciles doing it solely to spite the sort of people who would respect these things.

  13. Randomfactor says

    I was lucky enough to view close-up a large number of similar petroglyphs near this spot when I was in elementary school. Those had the good fortune to be located behind a US Navy bombing range and thus pretty well-guarded, though.

    That Americans could do this kind of irreparable damage for money…seems totally unsurprising.

  14. says

    I would just add that objects and places like these rock paintings are not necessarily “precious archaeological sites”–or only worth protecting if they are. They have been and are quite valuable to people completely independent of Western categories of knowledge or methods of seeking knowledge.

    And of course non-Westerners work in archeology these days, but archaeology is not the only locus for the value of indigenous sacred places.

    Not that anyone has made this claim explicitly, but I see it might be lurking in a couple of comments, down there at the level of language choice.

    oh, hai!

    This is the first year I have given up Thanksgiving whole and entire. So far it has been the best Thanksgiving fourth Thursday in November in a very long time.

  15. says

    If you’re american at all (either continent), it’s pretty safe to say you benefit from and support the structures that continue to harm first nations people. I’m not as big on shame as I am useful action, so that part doesn’t concern me, as such, but to raise your hands and say “It was my ancestors, I have no part of it”, while enjoying the spoils, raises my cockles.

  16. says

    Well, Indiana Jones would be proud of them, wouldn’t he?
    We just take, take, take, no matter how much is destroyed by that. And then we celebrate those who did it.
    What would be the reaction if, say, Japanese people started hacking out pieces of the Sixtin Chapel frescos?
    But since it was done by “savage” people, “civilised” people have the absolute right to take it if they want to.

  17. says

    I did some very basic research on the Plymouth Colony for a Thanksgiving D&D game (starting with the players’ hometown being cursed with a strange sleepiness after eating the flesh of the Plymouth Roc, to give some idea of the tone), and I was interested to learn about how as early as 1625 the Pilgrims were already starting religious wars against other British settlers, who did such things as drinking alcohol, dancing, and ignoring the sabbath.

  18. steve oberski says


    Well, in general my polish/catholic ancestors were busy throwing rocks through the storefronts of and conducting pogroms against the indigenous jewish population of eastern europe so they can’t take the hit for the campaign of genocide against native north americians.

    Do I take any blame or have any guilt for the actions of my ancestors ?
    Absolutely not.

    Have I benfited in any way from their actions ?
    Hard to say, there’s a good reason my ancestors left war torn europe 2 generations ago and I suspect the behaviour of their ancestors had a lot to do with it. I’m pretty sure quality of life is in general higher than it would have been in europe.

    Do I find their behaviour reprehensible ?

    Do I think it hypocritical to apply our standards to them ?
    Sure do.

    Do I think I would have acted any differently in their situtation at that time and place ?
    Probably not.

    Do I think that the shouldering of guilt for actions I had no part in cheapens the meaning of guilt and make mockery of any actions that might be made to recompense victims of atrocities ?

    I think this vicarious taking on of guilt is a secular verion of religious prayer, it make you feel good while actually doing nothing.

  19. alektorophile says


    I would just add that objects and places like these rock paintings are not necessarily “precious archaeological sites”–or only worth protecting if they are. They have been and are quite valuable to people completely independent of Western categories of knowledge or methods of seeking knowledge.

    A 3500-year-old petroglyph site is of course by definition an archaeological site, whether you like it or not, not sure what you are getting at. And nobody ever said anywhere on this thread that “indigenous sacred places”, whether they be Native American, Zulu, Swedish or Tibetan, are not worthy of protection even if possibly devoid of historical or archaeological significance (and they are unlikely to be). What I, at least, was getting at is that it looks likely that the removal and destruction of the petroglyphs was carried out with the antiquities market and collectors in mind, and that historical and archaeological sites anywhere in the world are unfortunately at risk because of the existence of such a market. I think the whole misguided post-modernist, post-processual navel-gazing manicheistic narrative of evil bad imperialist archaeologists vs. noble natives protecting their ancestral heritage is a bit much, and clearly irrelevant in this case.


    What would be the reaction if, say, Japanese people started hacking out pieces of the Sixtin Chapel frescos?
    But since it was done by “savage” people, “civilised” people have the absolute right to take it if they want to.

    True, that describes much of the thinking of Western explorers and plunderers throughout the last few centuries. But the problem is not restricted to indigenous art and artifacts, there are for instance hundreds of cases of theft and vandalism at Roman-era or medieval sites throughout Europe every year, and many thefts are a direct consequence of collectors wanting some unusual old object in their living room. One quick example: the small church next to my home had a number of small “ex voto” style paintings from the 16th to 18th C in it, some painted or commissioned by ancestors of mine. Half of them were stolen about ten years ago, so that some rich jerk could buy them in Europe, the US, or East Asia and presumably hang them up in his bedroom, devoid of meaning and context. While of course the topic of this post was meant to highlight Thanksgiving and the treatment of Native Americans and their heritage, I just wanted to point out that the problem, as far as vandalism and theft of our common historical and cultural heritage are concerned, is a universal one.

  20. donny5 says

    This is really sad, why would someone want to take the time to ruin something so amazing. My parent’s have a cottage in central Ontario, and close by there are Petroglyph’s going back about 1,000 years. The glyphs are all carved into a big limestone rock by the Algonkian or Iroquian people. It is now protected by a glass building. They are amazing. I go to see them at least once a year.

    PZ is right. At Thanksgiving we don’t honour the poeple whose land we took. Canada is a lot like the U.S. in that we spend most of our time ignoring Native Canadians, especially in the east. I think the brutality of it all scares people. In Canada, we don’t want to admit that a virtual holocaust took place here, so it gets brushed under the table. Very few people care about history here anyway.

  21. says

    not sure what you are getting at

    At a guess, that they matter whether or not white people have a use for them.

    You’re dense as shit, aren’t you? The point isn’t about some notion of inherited guilt; I don’t much care if you’re descended from Hernando Cortes, if you’re in Spain. Are you benefiting from an illicit system, and are you doing anything to end it? The answer to the former is yes, unless you are in fact a native american. If you aren’t doing anything to end it, you’ve got no right to just lift your hands and pretend you’re blameless.

  22. broboxley OT says

    I think more actual money could have been made by tracing then mass producing the tracings for sale. Shortsighted stupidity and I hope the thieves are found and prosecuted.

    As for steve oberski your attitude is why the following is needed

    While most rapes occur within racial groups, this is not true for Native women. More than 86 percent of the offenders are non-Indians, and more than 70 percent are white.
    This last statistic matters a great deal.
    Because until today, Native women raped by a non-Indian assailant had virtually no recourse. With rare exceptions, only federal law enforcement authorities have had jurisdiction to arrest and prosecute non-Native offenders on tribal lands. And historically, federal authorities have cared little about such cases: Federal authorities routinely decline to prosecute more than 50 percent of all violent crimes committed in Indian Country; the rate of declination is much higher for sexual assault cases.
    Today that will change. The Tribal Law and Order Act will substantially expand tribal jurisdiction over non-Native offenders for crimes of sexual violence, and providing desperately needed resources to tribes to help them prosecute such cases. Introduced in 2009 in the House by Rep. Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin (D-SD) and in the Senate by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), the legislation is a watershed in tribal law.

  23. strange gods before me ॐ says

    Cool Raul Ruiz won.


    Do I think it hypocritical to apply our standards to them ?
    Sure do.

    Whatever it is, it’s not hypocritical. We will also be judged by the future. I certainly hope they use their own ethical standards and not “our”s.

    I think this vicarious taking on of guilt is a secular verion of religious prayer

    Probably not. In an Earth history where religion never developed, so people never had occasion to say “secular version”, there would still be people saying things like “every American who arrived after 1492 should be disgusted with themselves.”

    Anyway, we in still active systems of white nationalism. This isn’t so much about the past. This idea about assets is not perfect but it shouldn’t hurt.

  24. says

    Revolting. I can’t grasp the mentality behind this kind of vandalism and wanton destruction.

    $15,000 per petroglyph, or maybe more, from some idiot that wants it on his wall. There was a whole family of these sort of low intelligence, high greed, idiots a while back, digging up Indian grave sites, to sell off the artifacts in them. Its tomb raiding, just with a rock saw which probably cost less than a fraction of what they will get selling just one of the things they cut loose.

    The prior idiots, with the paint balls… would have been tagging buildings, if it was in a city, on the theory that it didn’t matter what else was already there, it was a “convenient” place to do it. Wouldn’t bet on the morons even having a damn clue what they where shooting at, other than, “Gosh, that would make a damn good target, and much cheaper than buying paper ones!”

    Is say we ship all these idiots south, when those other morons finally secede:,0,2258920.story

  25. busterggi says

    While I deplore the vandalism I question the statement “Mastamho the creator’s son dug the Colorado out of the desert sands with his walking stick” because I’m pretty sure that it was Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan that dug it.

  26. says

    Pecos Bill, maybe. Paul Bunyan’s temperate forest-adapted ass would have dried up and blown away in the Mythical Chemehuevi Valley. Wasn’t he from Minnesota or someplace?

    That ox of his would have fed the Aha Macav for a long time, though.

  27. broboxley OT says

    Paul and Babe the Blue Ox, his companion, dug the Grand Canyon when he dragged his axe behind him.

    Typical whites, trying to steal from the Indians. Everyone knows that Pokanghoya and Polongahoya created the canyon with thunderbolts and playing with mud.

  28. alektorophile says


    At a guess, that they matter whether or not white people have a use for them.

    Meaning that archaeology is only a “white people” thing? That is what I strongly object to. By that measure science in general is only one of those “western categories of knowledge or methods of seeking knowledge”, i.e. a “white people” thing. Such a view wrongly equates and opposes a “western way” of doing things, whether it be archaeology, geology, biology, etc., with a traditional, indigenous way. I am the first to recognize the importance of any particular cultural tradition, religious myth, or creation story, they play an important part in creating identities and preserving communities among other things, but in no way do they replace the need and the value of a scientific approach to acquiring knowledge. I can lament the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas or the Timbuktu mausolea because of their archaeological and historical importance, it doesn’t mean I do not recognize their value within the local culture, and it surely doesn’t mean I am applying a narrow “white people” view on things, but rather a more universal, scientific one, in acknowledging their importance as part of our common human heritage.

  29. unclefrogy says

    from what was posted about the destruction
    it was somebody who never did that before
    they had tools which are readily available
    they broke as much as they stole

    so what we have is ignorant incompetent would be thieves
    or Tweeker (speed freaks, meth addicts) construction workers out of work.

    sad I doubt they even got much for it either.

    uncle frogy

  30. Rich Woods says

    I can’t comprehend the mindset which would encourage or enable the defacement or destruction of ancient artefacts of any sort. Even if a particular artefact cannot be traced to a people and/or culture extant today (and where it does it makes such an insult particularly emotive), these objects form part of the collective history of all the human beings alive today and deserve an equally broad recognition and respect.

    I might not be much interested in the purpose for which, say, Lincoln Cathedral was built, but I can certainly be interested, involved and committed to the maintenance of it for the sake of current and future generations of visitors. And if someone were to take a chainsaw or chisel to Stonehenge, for example, my gut reaction would be to want to see their arms broken.

    Wishing for violent punishment isn’t a good thing, obviously, but gut reactions rarely are.

  31. Rich Woods says


    “the maintenance of it” is supposed to refer to the structure itself and not the purpose for which it was built.

    Preview and proof-read next time, idiot.

    Watch me now fail to take my own advice a second time…

  32. Rich Woods says

    Oh yeah, and “generations of visitors” is supposed to read “generations of visitors (including those with a religious interest)”.

    I’m going to go get some much-needed sleep now.

  33. cherrybombsim says

    That is a really, really disgusting picture.

    Maybe 3000 years from now, archaeologists will come to look at the chain-saw cuts and analyze those as artifacts, some other group will treasure them as the sacred expressions of their ancestors, and another group will deface them with atomic disintegrators.

  34. says


    Every american who arrived after 1492 should be disgusted with themselves.

    Every moron who makes blanket statements about an entire nationality should be disgusted with themselves.

    Some of my ancestors were here before 1492
    Some of my ancestors were brought over here as slaves
    The remainder of my ancestors came over in the late 1800’s

    So which ones are responsible for the acts that I should feel ashamed of? Do they cancel each other out? Please enlighten me on just how ashamed I should feel.