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?
Besides, we are not so separate; our histories have at some point, for better or worse, mingled. Perhaps there is something of value to be found in that; perhaps we can heal sicknesses in our own culture by understanding and appreciating the Indian cultures that lived successfully on the land for thousands of years before us and thereby gradually incorporate essential principles and values that sustained them into our own lives. Exposing these sites will help us to honor Indian cultures and to question what we might learn from them. Hiding these cultures away from being more widely appreciated neither honors the Indians nor heals what can be healed in our own culture.
The Indians are understandably protective, but as a general principle, if you hold to tight to something, you’re bound to lose it. The Indians and archeologists should be commended for holding tight to this point, but they should reconsider what Benney is doing lest they hold too tightly and strangle what they love and seek to protect.
Craig Rieser, Sacramento
You’re Not His Accomplice
Regarding the actual story, it’s certainly a shame that it takes only one man to threaten an entire history of site protection. The delicate balance between public outreach and preventing abuse to sites is incredibly tricky and constantly weighs on the minds of every cultural resources manager. Unfortunately, Benney completely refutes this complex issue in his simplistic and uninformed notion that “the more people know,” the better. I take this quite personally as an archaeologist whose entire career is based on measuring human impacts on archaeological sites. Every year, I visit sites (in wilderness areas, no less!) that have seen some kind of damage resulting from visitors’ actions. Pertaining to the question posed by Randall, the role of journalism is to inform the public by presenting all sides of a story. Which is exactly what this article has done — they not only explained the situation in general (i.e., the “news”), but gave the readers an insight into Benney’s motivations and character while simultaneously offering a wide arena within which the opposing argument was presented. The reporter and publication are certainly NOT accomplices in anything.
David Curtis, Santa Rosa
Father Doesn’t Know Best
One can agree with Michael Newland that “there are circumstances where it’s in the public good to withhold information” — national security crises come to mind — without agreeing with him that no one should be allowed to reveal the location of bedrock mortar sites on public land in the East Bay hills. Bedrock mortars are holes in rock and are not easily damaged, especially not by daylighting, which removes feces, twigs, leaves, and other detritus from the mortar “cups.” After 200-plus years of disuse, the only “microscopic food remains” left in the mortars are tightly bound with the rock surface and typically covered by a thin layer of dirt and/or vegetation. One daylights with one’s fingers, not a router. To call this “vandalism” as Newland does, is perverse and verges on name-calling.
So, what are the “circumstances” that would justify the suppression and prior restraint of a book like James Benney’s? The threat to our “shared heritage”? In matters concerning free speech and individual freedom, it’s important to put things into perspective. Raids by a few pothunters on the half-mile long Morgan Territory village featured in the article would barely scratch the surface of that site. Our shared heritage would not be compromised by unauthorized excavations because the village is too large for them to matter. Newland and others may well believe that the threat of any damage to an archaeological site is sufficient to suppress information about its location, but they are going to have to come up with more than exaggerations and ad hominem attacks to get their point across.
I defy Michael Newland to produce a quote from James Benney wherein he claims to speak for the public. This is a serious misrepresentation. James Benney speaks for himself, but if you listen to Newland, Potts, and Curtis, there’s something outrageous, even improper, about this. Potts even says Benney “has no right to take matters into his own hands.” Do these three live their lives so enmeshed in bureaucratic processes that they can’t imagine someone speaking out for himself and not for some group? Is their notion of civic life so limited that they think only groups — stakeholders — are entitled to act?
My impression is that Newland and other Benney detractors look down on us John and Jane Does who like to hike and explore in the East Bay hills. They are the trained experts, we the public rabble. They know what’s what, while we’re “simplistic” and “uninformed.” No wonder they don’t think we’re responsible enough to visit Native American sites on our own. However, I have news for them. Father doesn’t always know best.
Bob Bardell, San Francisco
The Right to Know
Great article on James Benney. The archeological community in the San Francisco Bay area has a long way to go in dispelling the perception that they operate in secret at the taxpayers expense and that the cultural sites in this area are their private and exclusive playground. Showing the public how to make arrowheads and baskets once or twice a year is not enough. They need to balance the taxpayers’ right to know with the need to protect culturally sensitive sites. This is difficult and requires time and effort, but is well worth it. It is also the right thing to do. With that said, I think that Benney’s publishing of GPS coordinates was clearly the wrong thing to do.
Robert Magginetti, Ohlone descendent, Hayward
The Right to Experience
I understand the concern for vandalism to the Indian sites by irresponsible individuals. However, because of James Benney’s book, I have been introduced to a vastly complex and interesting facet of California history.
For me, a visit to an Indian site is a time for reflection and appreciation of the Indian people and their culture.
Thank you Mr. Benney.
Jane O’Donnell, Piedmont
The Right to Residuals
I agree that this book should not have been published, or if it had been published with restrictions where the books would be allowed only in American Indian Libraries, that might have OK. The Indians were slaughtered, their cultures stolen, their burial sights desecrated and not honored, and today so many American Indians live in such total poverty, perhaps Mr. Benney should offer residuals from the book to the Ohlone people who can no longer be found in the Bay Area.
Nina Council, Ashland, OR
Very well written article. I enjoyed reading it and I believe it is well balanced in its portrayal of the opposing viewpoints.
Karl Kilguss, owner/operator, Arrowheads.com, Cincinnati
Siding With Vandals
In the article “The Indian Hunter” Mr. Rick Parmer of East Bay Regional Parks is dead on. He says preserving and interpreting archaeological resources “are challenges we need to face as a society and decide how we’re going to do it,” and in regards to Mr. James Benney’s guide to Bay Area archaeological sites Mr. Parmer says, “The publication of this book has made the district much more sensitive to the need to do that.” Mr. Benney, with the publication of his book, chose to ignore larger society to promote his own interests. He disregarded the concerns of the Native-American community. He deliberately avoided consulting East Bay Regional Parks, other landholding agencies, and professional archaeologists whose job it is to safeguard archaeological sites. Interviewee Mr. Gregg Castro is right when he says, “He’s created his own fantasy and ethical world to justify the things he’s doing.” Mr. Benney claims to be promoting awareness of Native American history by publicizing archaeological site locations, but in reality his book is a personal crusade against the people whose job it is to protect and interpret these resources.
The article demonstrates there are many opportunities for the public to visit Bay Area archaeological sites in a controlled environment. The Vasco Regional Preserve and Los Coyotes Regional Park have supervised tours where the public can be informed on archaeological resources by Native Americans and park staff, something Mr. Benney chose not to do when he went “wandering from a ranger-led bedrock mortar tour” at East Bay Regional Parks in 2001. The Vasco Regional Preserve and Los Coyotes Regional Park are fine examples of how archaeological resources can be preserved and interpreted for public benefit. They demonstrate how archaeological resources can be promoted in an ethical and responsible manner.
Photographic evidence of Mr. Benney damaging an archaeological resource is presented in the article. Many Native Americans find “daylighting” offensive on different levels. From an archaeological standpoint, exposing bedrock mortars by removing debris destroys any possibility of recovering food residues and other artifacts that trained archaeologists are able to recognize. Mr. Benney didn’t understand he was damaging the site because he is uninformed. Now that he has published his book many more uninformed individuals will be visiting Bay Area archaeological sites that are incredibly fragile and non-renewable resources.
Unfortunately it only takes one act of vandalism or uninformed disturbance like “daylighting” to irreversibly damage an archaeological site. That is why there is the nondisclosure clause in the National Historic Preservation Act. Archaeological sites and other cultural resources are not like an endangered species of animal that can recover from near extinction. When a piece of information is lost by vandalism, looting, or even unintentional damage it is gone forever. It is a unique situation and for the moment the nondisclosure clause is the most helpful deterrent to the damaging of archaeological sites.
Mr. Benney acted unscrupulously when he chose to avoid consulting with the larger community before publishing his book. If he wanted to promote archaeological resources he would have done so through proper channels. Instead, his main goal was to challenge the moral authority of Native Americans and the professional archaeological community and to undermine Federal and State law. He has done so at the expense of the public’s archaeological heritage.
Benjamin Elliott, Sonoma State University graduate student of Cultural Resource Management, Oakland
Manifest Destiny Lives
I too want the legacy of indigenous people to be preserved for the public and future generations to learn from. Benney names how preservation could benefit us. But there’s something insidious and frighteningly familiar about a person of European descent deciding for themselves what’s best done with indigenous people’s legacy. Benney intentionally avoids consulting living native people, and worse defies their expressed positions and those coded into law. James Benney represents that spirit of manifest destiny that is so well rooted in the psyche of white America, namely that the world is here for our consumption; that we can assume to know what’s best for others; that we can ignore established rules without fear of reprisals; and that if we offend indigenous people there won’t be any consequences, anyway.
As a white man with both class and white-skin privilege, I can’t just roll my jaded eyes over this story and cynically go on minding my own business. The East Bay Express has gifted free publicity to this misguided man, helping him profit off of the further marginalization of indigenous people. When there are so many stories of indigenous people’s resistance to marginalization, it is distressing that this is the type of coverage the Express chooses to give. If it bleeds it leads and in this case, on the cusp of Indigenous People’s/Columbus Day, the blood’s still drawn by a cowboy “Indian Hunter.”
Michael Philip Katz, Oakland
Knowledge is Power
As a local filmmaker who has explored native burial desecration in the Bay Area, I’ve dealt firsthand with many of the issues raised by the publication of James Benney’s book.
What strikes me most about Mr. Benney’s decision to reveal exact locations of native sites is that both archaeologists and members of the native community — who are often fiercely at odds — are united against his methods. It surprises me that Mr. Benney did not show some more discretion, whether out of professional courtesy, or respect.
The public does not need GPS coordinates to appreciate native sites. In fact, the entire Bay Area is native land — from the Golden Gate to Mt. Diablo and beyond — and we should be in awe and wonder of its beauty every day.
Having said this, the guidebook’s controversy does reveal some of the problems with the current system of keeping sites secret. While the sites in Benney’s book are on park land, and relatively safe, there are hundreds of sites on private land across the Bay Area that are invisible to the public and vulnerable to development. The Emeryville Shellmound is a perfect example of this.
Despite the fact that this site had been extensively documented and studied throughout the 20th century, it was demolished during the construction of the Bay Street shopping center. More than 300 native burials were dug out of the ground between 1999 and 2002. The public was largely unaware that the Shellmound even existed until it was all over.
Knowledge is power, and Bay Area residents need to know what lies beneath our feet so that we can tread lightly. We need to know that the West Berkeley Shellmound is under threat of development, as is the burial site at Glen Cove in Vallejo. What we don’t need to know are the exact coordinates of the sites — this is information is only useful to professionals, and pothunters.
It’s a delicate balance, and protecting these sites will require cooperation and mutual understanding between all those who care deeply about their preservation. Hopefully, Mr. Benney’s error in judgment has not disturbed either the fragile alliances that have been at work thus far, or the very sites he seeks to protect.
Andrés Cediel, director/producer, Shellmound, Berkeley
Thank You, East Bay Express
I just read “The Indian Hunter,” and have to compliment you on one of the most well written articles I have come across concerning archaeology. I am quite familiar with this particular issue, and the facts and points of view that you have used to explain this troubling situation makes very and easily understandable the issues at hand.
I strongly encourage you to continue to follow this story line in the future, as this issue is not only topical, but extremely important in the archaeological, CRM, and Native American communities.
Richard Douglas, San Diego
Keep At it
Very interesting reading … so interesting, it makes me wonder why there is not more hard-hitting investigative journalism in the Bay Area. It’s amazing how much more the East Bay Express investigates the routine corruption of this area, far outshining the completely inept Oakland Tribune. Keep up the good work, EBE. Thanks.
Manuel De Piedra, Castro Valley
Pay What You Want
It is an out-of-the-box idea. There are people who have tons of money but someone has to inspire them and show the way to serve the underprivileged in the society. More and more such units need to come up in and around Delhi.
Krishan Lal Chhabra, Gurgaon, India
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In the October 24 installment of Apprehension, our crime column, we erroneously confused Antioch murder victim Faith Blevins with East Bay choreographer Faith Blevins. We regret the error, and any pain it may have caused either family.
In our article about intolerance to gluten, (“Sliced Dread,” October 17), we stated that a diagnosis of the autoimmune disorder celiac disease requires a fairly straightforward blood test that checks for the presence of antibodies. However, there are several such tests, which are not always conclusive and can give false negatives. A definitive diagnosis requires an intestinal biopsy that demonstrates damage to the villi in the small intestine.