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Africa & Aboriginal Tuesdays: Petroglyphs Among The Most Threatened Sacred Sites

SELLS, Ariz. - A Tohono O’odham petroglyph near sacred Baboquivari Mountain was chiseled out and stolen, following a nationwide attack on petroglyphs by vandals and promoters of development.

"I knew something like this would happen," said Ernest Moristo, who serves as a neokidam or Tohono O’odham protector and sacred caretaker of Baboquivari Peak, home of the O’odham Creator I’itoi.

"I’ve tried to keep the tourists from knowing about it, but they already have a sign out there saying ‘picture rock.’ There are other places that still need to be protected. We’re still trying to keep the people away, but the Border Patrol is still coming in there."

Moristo is now asking the Tohono O’odham Nation to send tribal rangers or tribal police to protect the area, and to keep the U.S. Border Patrol out. Last year, Moristo and sacred caretaker Dennis Manuel went to the United Nations in New York, seeking help to protect the sacred area. When they returned, Border Patrol agents working under Homeland Security had set up a military camp in the area of I’itoi’s sacred cave dwelling.

"When we came back from the United Nations, the Border Patrol was camped there," Moristo said in his appeal for help to protect the region near the border of the United States and Mexico on the Tohono O’odham Nation.

Chuck Benson, married to Moristo’s sister Rosemary Moristo Benson, said he and his wife went out to the sacred petroglyphs to pray the last week of May. "My wife said, ‘It looks like someone’s been doing some chipping here.’

"I told my wife ‘pray in your language.’ She’s from the Coyote Clan and when she started to pray, we heard the coyotes. When we returned with Ernie and he said his prayers, we heard the coyotes again."

Benson said a section of the petroglyph about one-foot by two-feet in size had been chiseled out. He said this was not the first time the petroglyphs have been desecrated.

"Someone has traced around the petroglyphs with chalk. They’ve shot at them, spray-painted them, written on them with graffiti. These are hundreds, maybe thousands of years old."

Moristo said Baboquivari District tribal officials want to bring tourism into the area, development that he is fighting. "They make a tourist sign and there’s no one out there watching over it. Now there are bullet holes and a section of the petroglyph taken out."

Moristo said he would meet with other Tohono O’odham sacred caretakers and decide how to proceed and whether to close the area off to visitors.

Benson pointed out that the Baboquivari area is a refuge to three endangered species, including the Pygmy Owl. "I had one following me around a tree one time.

"We saw a Mexican gray wolf up there and there is the plant, Kearney’s bluestar (Amsonia kearneyana.) There are only 600 plants left and they are all at Baboquivari. It is an old medicine plant, similar to bitterroot. It is hard to find, so the plants are sort of protecting themselves."

In this desert area of jagged mountain rock, Benson said there have also been three jaguar sightings in the last decade. "To see jaguar sightings this far north is really rare."

Moristo encouraged American Indians across the nation to protect their sacred petroglyphs. "Start taking a stand to protect the petroglyphs in your own backyard, you should really get the people to back you up."

For seven generations Moristo’s ancestors have lived here in the area of Baboquivari Peak and the surrounding sacred area known as Gu Kui Chuchg (Big Tree Pasture.) They are the lineal descendants of the neokidam, protectors or "those who speak for," the sacred sites known as I’itoi or Montezuma’s Cave, Waw:kil Toa;g (Baboquivari Peak) and the ancient and sacred petroglyphs commonly known to O’odham as Picture Rock.

Moristo descends from Mo’o Guk or "Standing Head," and his forefathers, headsmen of Gu Kui, were all born just below Baboquivari Peak. Moristo’s great-grandfather Santiago Moristo, the first to adopt this foreign name, was born in 1853 at Gu Kui, the year of the Gadsen Purchase, which made this region part of the United States.

Mo’o Guk was living here, long before it became part of the United States or when the Dawes Act began allotment of lands to individual Indians. Mo’o Guk lived here before the creation of the Tohono O’odham Nation, formerly known as the Papago Indian reservation.

The O’odham Himida’g, sacred lifeways includes clans such as Coyote, Buzzard and Bear and the annual saguaro harvest to call the rain. There are songs about wind and rain, about Baboquivari and other sacred mountains and I’itoi. The Moristo family said the lifeways and this sacred area of Baboquivari should be protected from the exploitation of tourism and development.

Meanwhile, in New Mexico, the city of Albuquerque is proceeding with a plan to construct a new highway that will destroy sacred petroglyphs. The city is ignoring the admonitions of leaders of the 19 pueblos.

Nationwide, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the petroglyphs in a remote part of Utah, Nine Mile Canyon, among the 11 most endangered historic places in America. Nine Mile Canyon called "the world’s longest art gallery" has 10,000 American Indian rock-art images. It is currently threatened by plans for extensive oil and gas exploration by the Bureau of Land Management.

"From factories that defined a nation to the home of a racehorse that inspired generations, from rural archaeological sites to big-city high rises, from individual landmarks to entire neighborhoods, historic places tell us who we are as a nation," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust.

"Unless all of us become aware of the importance of our heritage and take action to preserve it, America’s past won’t have a future. That’s the real message of the 11 most endangered list."

The National Trust’s endangered places are 2 Columbus Circle in New York; Ridgewood Ranch, Home of Seabiscuit, in Willits, Calif.; Bethlehem Steel Plant in Bethlehem, Pa.; Elkmont Historic District, Great Smoky Mountains, Tenn.; Gullah/Geechee Coast, S.C. and Ga., a stretch of coastline homeland of descendants of slaves who retain a distinctive culture, traditions and language; Tobacco Barns of Southern Maryland; Madison-Lenox Hotel, Detroit; Historic Cook County Hospital, Chicago and George Kraigher House in Brownsville, Tex.

This article first appeared in Indian Country Today

Brenda Norrell

Tuesday, June 8, 2004

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