When you hunt, fish, hike or camp anywhere in Oregon, you’re never far from traces of the past. If you take the time to look, an ancient trail through the pass, petroglyphs above the river, broken pottery in the water and obsidian flakes in old campsites all bear mute testimony to those who’ve gone before.
If the flat above the river makes a good campsite today, chances are that it served other campers in times long past. If you notice that deer and elk trails lead to a funnel between two hilltops, you’re probably not the first human to hunt there.
Shoshones, Paiutes, Wascos, Modocs, Klamaths, Chinooks, Nez Perce, Cayuses, Umatillas, Rogues, Calapooyas, Bannocks and many other tribes all made their home in this land we now call Oregon. Today, 160 years later, we know something about how some of them lived prior to settlement by the pioneers. We know precious little about others.
In the 1860s, when war raged between North and South, and the newspapers spent all their ink on battles like Gettysburg and Richmond, settlers were moving into Oregon. Much of their struggle went unrecorded by the journalists of the day.
Conflicts with the Indians were often fierce and their names, like scars, are left on the landscape in places like Skull Hollow, Burnt Ranch and Fort Gibbs. There is a story behind every name but often that story is lost in the mists of time, except for a few fragments left on the landscape.
Sometimes a rain or a flash flood will expose some of that history to the light of present day. Once I hunted on a flat above a dry riverbed south of Burns. Instead of finding sage grouse, I found rings of rocks above the canyon and shiny flecks of obsidian where ancient Indians had crouched beside their fires, chipping arrowheads and other tools.
For a few moments I stood there and imagined what it must have looked like there, 500 years ago or more with a dozen lodges on the shore and children playing in the river. What these hills could tell us, if they could talk. The interesting thing about a place like that is it can reveal its secrets when we know what to look for.
Recognizing this, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) was passed in 1979, to help protect and preserve our cultural heritage. ARPA prohibits excavating prehistoric and historic ruins without an antiquities permit.
The Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and the State are serious about their stewardship of the public lands and defense of the past. Recently, federal agencies teamed up with agents from the IRS, OSP, DEA and the BATF to serve 22 search warrants in central and eastern Oregon, taking the next step in an investigation that has continued for two years.
Offenders can face up to five years in prison and up to $100,000 in fines for tampering with historic sites on public lands.
Recently, a friend of mine expressed his frustration. “What’s wrong with picking up an arrowhead?” he asked. “What’s wrong with bringing home one little piece of history to remind me of a great day in beautiful country? If I leave it out there, chances are no one else will ever see it. And someone else may take it home.”
If you spend enough time, hunting, fishing, hiking or camping in eastern Oregon, you may end up asking yourself the same question. It’s okay to pick it up and look at it, but you need to leave it where you found it.
John Zancanella, with the Bureau of Land Management office in Prineville, sees it this way: “Those artifacts have been laying there for 3000 to 5000 years and no one else has picked them up. Yes (that arrowhead) belongs to all of us, but if you take it home and stick it in your shoebox, then it doesn’t belong to all of us anymore.”
“And it comes down to respect,” he added, emphasizing the point that we’re joint-owners and caretakers of the land and its heritage. “Everybody is a steward of the land. Yes, we hire agents to manage the resources, but on the public lands, we’re all responsible to show respect and to be good stewards.”
An arrowhead or a hide scraper, laying exposed on the surface of the ground, may be an isolated piece of history that tells a tale of a long-ago hunt. Or, it could provide a clue to a village covered by the dust of time. Excavation may reveal another link to the past that may be lost forever if that one arrowhead is carried home.
Last year, while hunting deer on public land in eastern Oregon, I found a broken point on a table-topped mountain. It was the subtle shine of weathered obsidian that caught my eye, a glint of reflected light from the setting sun. That arrowhead connected some ancient hunter to his prey and, in some small way, to me, centuries later. I couldn’t keep the piece of shaped black volcanic glass, but I can hold on to the memory.