The 2,000-year-old Sarpy Creek Bison Kill site on the Crow Indian Reservation was desecrated when a backhoe wreaked havoc last year on what was potentially one of the most important archaeological finds in the last 50 years.
Archaeologists and Crow officials theorize prehistoric Natives performed rituals at this site honoring their lifeline, which was the bison. The site was desecrated in an apparent attempt to quickly remove it so the prime coal it rested upon could be strip mined.
Westmoreland Resources Inc. harvests some 5.5 million tons annually out of the local Absaloka Coal Mine area some 40 miles southeast of Hardin. The site was first recognized in 2005 by an archaeologist for the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM), and its apparent importance grew more obvious as layers of soil were removed.
But instead of devoting more time to it, efforts to hasten the normally tedious archaeological process led to a backhoe digging up chunks of land two meters at a time with the soil dumped through large screens to harvest artifacts beginning in late 2011.
Based on photographic evidence and the number of pristine artifacts pulled, archaeologists claimed the site would’ve been at least as important as the popular United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site, the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump on the Blackfeet Reservation in Alberta, Canada.
Tribal officials say the Sarpy Creek site could have potentially been a popular tourist destination for those leaving the Little Bighorn Battlefield, located approximately 40 miles away.
Tim McCleary, a Crow tribal historian and archaeologist, explained what distinguished the site from previous bison kill and processing sites in the region.
“What makes the one at Sarpy unique is that they completely processed the bones. They smashed everything. Even skulls,” he said. “The only thing that wasn’t smashed to the size of a silver dollar was stuff that they couldn’t, like the joints. And they apparently boiled it even past what was necessary to clean the bone or get the marrow.”
After the bones were processed into piles of rubble, Indians laid them out meticulously before putting unused arrows and atlatl spear tips across the top as offerings. McCleary notes, “When they did the initial excavations, you could see the arrow points carefully in a row. So obviously, something very unique was going on.”
There was evidence of at least a few layers of the bone-smashing rituals, and much could have been learned about the spiritual beliefs of the time as pertaining to bison. Nearby tipi rings marked the former nomadic inhabitants’ campsite in the area, and sandstone rocks had pictographs on them.
“At this site over 2,000 years ago, a ceremony was done by our people, and put in place, and covered up by Mother Earth,” says Burton Pretty On Top, director of the Crow Cultural Committee. “So it’s kind of like a shrine or altar for us. Those of us that follow our traditional beliefs – Native spirituality – know that it’s sacred, much like how the St. Peter’s Basilica (in Vatican City) is sacred to the Catholics. To us, these bone beds were sacred much in that same way. This was our temple and holy place that our ancestors prayed at and honored with ceremonies and song.”
McCleary explained the site is from the Pelican Lake Tradition, a general term used for the region’s artifacts from the Late Archaic period 2,000 or so years ago. The site covers some 3,000 square meters, and bison were herded into a boxed-shaped canyon before a bonfire was made at the entrance to scare them from going out.
Since bison are afraid of cliff sides and fence lines, they would circle and even gore each other once they became muddled, rather than going near the cliffs or fire. Then, once the lead bulls or cows were taken down, the rest of the herd would stand by their incapacitated leaders, making themselves easier targets.
“The Pelican Lake people were experts at buffalo hunting; it’s obviously how they made their living,” says McCleary. “It’s a neat site, but it’s all been sifted, and it is what it is now.”
Indeed, after it was revealed to current Crow tribal officials this year that a sacred site was dug up with a backhoe, Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) officer Richard White Clay said “anger and disappointment” was the general sentiment. One of those who witnessed the devastation in July was Utah state anthropologist Judson Finley, who happened to be teaching local Northern Cheyenne and Crow students in archaeological preservation training techniques.
“I was not prepared for what I saw,” says Finley. “You could say I was stunned, and maybe even stupefied. There was almost a lot of disbelief that it actually happened, but it did.”
Pretty On Top said there was no consensus from tribal officials or from the community to allow what happened, save for permission from the former head of the Preservation Office, Dale Old Horn, and current chairman-elect Darren Old Coyote, who oversaw the THPO department during that time as vice secretary and the executive branch Officer in charge of cultural affairs. Old Horn is being investigated by the U.S. Department of the Interior Office of the Inspector General for the suspected mismanagement of $500,000 in THPO funds and was fired early this year.
“One of the key parts of the archaeological process is public involvement,” says Finley. Although some locals theorize the site could’ve been Crow-related, it’s not really possible to know. “And because of the site being what it is, all of the potentially affiliated tribes in the area would’ve been affected by this,” he says.
Pretty On Top recalls having to inform tribal elders about the desecration. Like nearly everyone in the community, they knew nothing about the site until after it was destroyed. When it was explained that permission to dig up the sacred area with a backhoe was actually granted by a tribal member, they told him, [translated] “‘Apsaalooke (Crow) people have respect for sacred sites, and this individual did not have any of that. Words cannot express the anger that we have at this point. This was our shrine, this was our temple. Back in the day, 2,000 years ago, this is where they went to pray. No amount of money can equal to the damage that’s been done. Buffalo are sacred to the Apsaalooke; it was our survival for everything we needed – shelter for tipi covers, clothing, food – that God put into place for us. Therefore, the animal was held in high regard.’”
Westmoreland Resources Inc. stood its ground on the decision. The vice president of planning and engineering, Thomas Dunham, told the Great Falls Tribune, “The process of obtaining a mining permit is very explicit, as is the type of information we have to develop. We have to do a phase archaeological reconnaissance on every square foot of the area we are attempting to mine. We did that and identified the Sarpy Creek site in the process. Then the archaeologist who works with OSM and works with the tribe developed a data recovery plan that was presented to the Crow Tribal Historic Preservation Office.”
Dunham also told the Tribune, “When the rules change in the middle of the game, that makes them tough to follow.”
Pretty On Top noted, “This Dunham is defending himself and saying this took seven years before this backhoe work was done. That hardly compares to 2,000 years of history. So am I supposed to be impressed that it took him seven years for the decision they took to desecrate that site?”
Cultural Committee members say they were kept in the dark about the uniqueness and even existence of the site, as Old Horn tightly controlled the flow of information. They’re also perturbed at the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, which signed off on the matter.
“The BIA was right there when they took those artifacts, and that breaches our trust responsibility,” White Clay said. Fellow THPO officer Hubert Two Leggins said even if the Department of Interior and BIA claim they had all the correct documentation, common sense dictates a sacred site should continue to be excavated with tools like brushes and trowels, not a backhoe.
When the BIA office in Billings was contacted about its involvement, a press statement was sent from Department of the Interior spokesman Blake Androff, who said, “Archaeologists carried out the excavation of the site in 2009 and 2010 in accordance with the approved Data Recovery Plan. An on-site review of the data recovery efforts was also conducted by these parties and the OSM in 2010 to consider further directions for data recovery actions, if any. In 2011, further recovery was accomplished to recover additional information. Crow Cultural Committee monitors were present at all excavations.”
Pretty On Top counters, “Dale Old Horn, the BIA, Westmoreland Resources – one is not more or less guilty than the other; they’re all equally guilty. We just want someone to step up to the plate and even jeopardize themselves to aid with any kind of prosecution we’re able to come up with. Someone has to pay for that.”
The OSM archaeologist referred to by Dunham is named Gene Munson. He’s been under intense scrutiny for his role in the matter, and Finley, the Utah anthropologist, says Munson has “been holed up” since the matter was brought to public light.
According to THPO’s Two Leggins, Munson is the one who personally operated the backhoe. The site had actually been excavated with care prior to the backhoe damage. When the idea of using the backhoe was brought up, however, Two Leggins said, “Gene Munson told me it only took Dale Old Horn about five minutes to decide to follow through with using it. So they claim it took them seven years to come up with this plan, when I reality it took them five minutes.”
Finley said he came across Munson by chance, and wanted his explanation of why he approved such a devastating method. “Of course, everybody’s tried to shirk responsibility for it,” he said. “They’re all, ‘Oh, I have no power, I have no responsibility, and if I didn’t do it then somebody else would’ve done it.’ And that’s basically what Munson told me. Of course, my response to that is: Then don’t do it. Money can’t buy your conscience. Now he regrets it, and he’s not talking to anybody.”
The Crow Tribe requested all of Munson’s notes and the materials excavated from the site be returned immediately, or the tribe could take legal action through the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. Although parties involved claim what they did was legal, the Crow Tribe will back an investigation into the violations of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act on Crow tribal lands.
In the meantime, the site’s been shut down and Finley says an “Olympic-sized swimming pool hole” is what remains of the former bison bed. Tribal members recently put a fence around the area to keep cattle from chewing on the exposed bison bone piles and from trampling on artifacts. Most remains were unceremoniously dumped in barrels and a large on-site storage container.
Finley advised tribal officials about what could be done to salvage what remained of the site, and recommended that the tribe contact Martin McAllister, who heads the Archaeological Damage Investigation and Assessment firm. McAllister describes his firm as the only one like it in the world and it has previous experience investigating areas where desecrations and vandalism have occurred.
Pretty On Top said, “He reminded us that whatever he does for us with his forensic equipment and expertise in regards to payments, Westmoreland, Dale Old Horn, and the BIA should step up to the plate and have to pay for it since the tribe is the victim.”
When Finley was asked why anyone could have consented to such an excavation, he said, “It’s pretty simple, unfortunately: It would’ve taken a lot of time money to excavate that site properly. The reality is that it should’ve been avoided. That’s always an option in the review process, and it’s usually the best and first option. But of course we’re talking about coal, and the whole area has coal underneath it. You make the connection.”