In the sci-fi film Avatar, the sacred Home Tree of the indigenous Na’vi sits atop a mass energy source called unobtanium before it’s violently destroyed by humans in their quest for more resources. In a case of life imitating art, the 2,000-year-old Sarpy Creek Bison Kill site, located some 50 miles from Crow Agency, Montana on the Crow Indian Reservation, was desecrated by a backhoe. The site was potentially one of the most important archaeological finds in the last 50 years that could have told us how North America’s original inhabitants lived and worshipped.
Archaeologists and Crow officials said prehistoric Natives performed rituals at this site honoring bison, but it was destroyed so the prime coal it sat upon could be strip-mined. Westmoreland Resources Inc. harvests some 5.5 million tons annually out of the local Absaloka Coal Mine on the reservation. The site was first discovered in 2005 by archaeologists contracted by Westmoreland, and its apparent significance grew the more it was excavated. Instead of devoting more time to the site, pressure to hasten the tedious archaeological process manifested into a backhoe digging up chunks of land two meters at a time then dumping it through large screens in late 2011.
Tim McCleary, a Crow tribal historian and archaeologist, explained that what distinguished it from other bison kill and processing sites in the region was Natives purposely smashed bison bones into piles of rubble before boiling them and laying them out meticulously. Before covering the bones with soil, they ritually placed unused arrow and atlatl spear tips across them. “You could see the arrow points carefully in a row,” McCleary notes. “Obviously something very unique was going on.”
There was evidence of a few layers of this particular bone crushing ritual over time, and much could’ve been professed about the spiritual beliefs of indigenous North Americans during the time of Christ.
“It’s kind of like a shrine or altar for us,” says Burton Pretty On Top, director of the Crow Cultural Committee (CCC). “Those of us that follow our traditional beliefs—Native spirituality—know these bone beds are sacred in the same way the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is sacred to the Catholics. This was our temple and holy place that our ancestors prayed at and honored with ceremonies and song.”
Indeed, after it was revealed to current Crow tribal officials this year that a sacred site was dug up with a backhoe, Richard White Clay, an officer with the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) said “anger and disappointment” was the general sentiment.
One of those who witnessed the devastation in July was Utah State anthropologist Judson Finley. “I was not prepared for what I saw,” he said. “There was almost a lot of disbelief that it actually happened, but it did.”
When the Bureau of Indian Affairs was contacted in regard to their consent on the matter, a statement from Department of the Interior spokesman Blake Androff said, “Archaeologists carried out the excavation of the site in 2009 and 2010 in accordance with the approved Data Recovery Plan…. Crow Cultural Committee monitors were present at all excavations.”
Pretty On Top said there was obviously no consensus from tribal officials, elders, or the community to do what they did, save for permission granted by former head of the THPO Dale Old Horn—who was fired earlier this year and is under federal investigation for allegedly mismanaging $500,000 in THPO-related expenses.
Current CCC members say they were kept in the dark about the uniqueness and even existence of the site, as Old Horn and former CCC director Darren Old Coyote were discrete on the matter. They’re also perturbed at the BIA because they not only signed paperwork giving permission to dig with the backhoe, but were present when the desecration happened. THPO officer Burdick Two Leggins said even if all sides claim they had correct documentation, common sense dictates a sacred site should continue to be excavated with tools like brushes and trowels, not a backhoe.
While Old Horn hasn’t responded to repeated media inquiries, Westmoreland Resources Inc. stood their ground as the vice president of planning and engineering Thomas Dunham told the Great Falls Tribune they’ve followed all correct protocol for the last 7 years, and the tribe was “changing the rules in the middle of the game.”
Pretty On Top said Dunham’s defense of saying they took seven years before resorting to using a backhoe 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? It doesn’t make sense for that individual to defend himself or the company that he’s working for.”
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. He recommended foremost that the tribe contact Martin McAllister of the Archaeological Damage Investigation & Assessment firm.
Finley and his archeological colleagues, who are not employed by mining companies, conclude that before the desecration, the site would’ve at the very least been a congressionally designated National Heritage Area of archeological significance. The National Park Service states “NHA’s tell nationally important stories that celebrate our nation’s diverse heritage.” Finley also said it possibly could have been designated a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site similar to the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump on the Alberta, Canada side of the Blackfeet Reservation. According to their website, UNESCO “seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.”
When asked why anyone would have consented to dig up the site, Finley says, “It’s pretty simple, unfortunately: it would’ve taken a lot of time and 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.”