NEWHALEM — The National Park Service is investigating the desecration of an archaeological site in the North Cascades National Park Service Complex, and the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe is hoping to bring those responsible to justice.
“From the tribe’s perspective, when we first heard about what happened, we were shocked and dismayed that someone would do something like this at a cultural site,” Scott Schuyler of the Upper Skagit said. “Some of these places are thousands of years old, and the fact that someone would want to come in and purposely destroy, damage or steal, it’s just unbelievable.”
Over the summer, evidence of digging was found at the Newhalem Rock Shelter camp used by the ancestors of the Upper Skagit tribe.
“There’s a real lack of respect for the tribe’s history and culture for anybody to do this, and we hope that they didn’t get away with anything and we hope that eventually they are held accountable,” Schuyler said, adding that the tribe believes any artifacts that may be at the site should remain buried. “To the tribe they are our history, they are our culture, they are priceless.”
North Cascades National Park Service Complex Chief Ranger Brandon Torres said that according to park records the shelter was discovered in 1989. After that a short trail and a viewing platform were built.
The idea is for park visitors to look and learn from a safe distance. The tribe supports this type of visitation, and Schuyler said tribal members helped with interpretive signs about the tribes’ history that are installed at the viewing platform.
“The Rock Shelter is basically a hunting area camp that my ancestors used to use for fishing and hunting and protecting themselves from the weather,” he said. “It’s not quite a cave, but pretty close to a cave. The upper wall has been burnt and cracked from all the cooking that would occur there.”
The tribe is working with the Park Service on the investigation and offering a $5,000 reward for information that leads to those responsible.
“Somebody tried to loot or dig up a cultural site, look for and I assume remove or steal any artifact that was found,” Schuyler said.
Not only is that unthinkable for tribal members, it’s also against the law.
“Even the fact that anyone was in it and digging at all, that’s a violation of the Archeological Resources Protection Act — you can’t be doing that — and it’s very concerning,” Torres said. “This is against the law.”
Under the act, excavation of archaeological sites requires permits and the involvement of the tribes with connections to the sites, and artifacts found on public lands are property of the United States.
Unauthorized excavation, removal, damage, alteration or defacement of archaeological sites, as well as trafficking of artifacts removed from those sites, is a federal offense. Depending on the value of items taken, conviction may result in a fine of up to $20,000 and up to two years in prison.