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Leave the Arrowhead: Respecting Public Lands & Their Resources

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

A couple of weeks ago, we had our donor recognition celebration at our favorite Ontario hangout, Berts Growler Garage. While we had some programming planned, we also wanted to make sure there was plenty of downtime for folks to grab their beverage of choice, look at our silent auction items (who can say no to a gorgeous framed map of the Owyhee?), and chat. In the meantime, I had a slideshow going of pictures of some of our trips out on the landscape for visual interest and casual entertainment. To be completely transparent, I offered to put the slideshow together so I got to be the one to dig through our thousands of photos for some great shots of the Owyhee. Getting paid to do fun projects? Am I dreaming?

One of the most photogenic places (alright fine, the whole region is photogenic) is Anderson Crossing. That location is so remote that it stays quite nearly just as rugged as Mother Nature made it. That pristine quality—combined with its magnificent canyons and rolling sagebrush seas—makes for some incredible photos, especially if you have talented photographers along. One of my favorite shots that I found from Anderson Crossing for this slideshow is this one.

What I love so much about this photo is that it’s so artistic. The color of a Friend’s jacket sleeve, the way their hand is positioned to hold the arrowhead, the focused foreground and blurred background, the composition… It’s such a professional shot. I like this shot so much that here I am, two weeks later, sharing it with you for a couple of reasons. One: it’s awesome. Two: I went to share this casually on Instagram, but I realized that there was something else that made this image stick with me. There is a conversation to be had here. A learning opportunity to be a better steward of our public lands.

I think I speak for a lot of us when I say that it’s really exciting to find a cool artifact like an arrowhead out on public lands. You’re weaving through sagebrush toward a canyon that you wanted to check out, and as you look down to make sure you’re not going to trip, you spot it: a shiny, carefully crafted arrowhead, complete with little hammered marks around its edges where it was refined painstakingly by someone in the—potentially very distant—past. You’re seeing it out in nature, so it must have served its purpose at one point. You go to pick it up, because after all, what an incredible piece to add to your collection of memorabilia and souvenirs, right? But this is where your stewardship brain hopefully kicks in. Should you just leave the arrowhead?

The short answer? Yes. Leave the arrowhead.

For education’s sake, let’s take a look at the long answer as well.

Before I get too deep into this, I want to put a huge disclaimer on this article: there are loads of people out there, especially Native folks like Meranda Roberts, that know much more about this than I could ever hope to. While Friends of the Owyhee is here to provide a basic overview of issues like this, we always recommend that you do some of your own research and ideally consult with representatives of local Tribal Nations or other land management authorities. This is a complex topic, and different Tribes may have differing views. The views presented here are an effort to be cognizant of the cultural significance held by these lands and the artifacts found on them.

The first component: the legal (and cultural) side of things

Recall the term we used earlier to talk about the arrowhead: an artifact. An artifact is defined as “an object made by a human being, typically an item of cultural or historical interest.” This places objects like remnants from ancient times and ancestors of Native folks in the category of archaeologically interesting (I hope that’s a phrase that archaeologists actually use). That combined with the fact that such an artifact was found on public lands—which, as we know, are the stolen and unceded lands of various Tribal Nations—makes an arrowhead (and other artifacts) a cultural resource.

There are three federal laws that largely dictate natural and cultural resource management on public lands:

  1. National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA; 1970). According to the EPA: “NEPA requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of their proposed actions prior to making decisions. [...] Using the NEPA process, agencies evaluate the environmental and related social and economic effects of their proposed actions.”

  2. National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA; 1966). Expanding on the Antiquities Act (1906) and Historic Sites Act (1935), NHPA requires that federal agencies (a) consider the effects of their work on historic properties and (b) preserve historic properties that fall under their jurisdiction, among other things.

  3. Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA; 1979). This law—arguably the most important for public land enthusiasts to understand—aims “to secure, for the present and future benefit of the American people, the protection of archaeological resources and sites which are on public lands and Indian lands.” One notable aspect of this law is that federal agencies are obligated to maintain the location and contents of archaeological resources confidential.

It doesn’t take a policy expert to know that it takes a lot of time and energy to institute laws like this. With so much effort in protecting archaeological resources, it’s crucial to recognize that, simply put, this is a big deal. While you aren’t necessarily going to be prosecuted for snagging an arrowhead on your walk across public lands, knowing about these laws helps put the weight of that decision into perspective. You aren’t just taking a souvenir that no one will notice is gone; you’re altering a cultural resource. To me, a cultural resource is sacred in and of itself—without that respect for history and culture, the world is a little dimmer.

Another component: being a better steward

The legal part of this issue is definitely important, but it’s not really our wheelhouse here at Friends of the Owyhee. If you’ve been following us for any period of time, you know that we have three main pillars in our mission: conservation advocacy, recreation, and stewardship.

On our platform, we often talk about the value of stewardship, which is the fundamental belief that we as humans are responsible for this Earth that we live on and should care for it responsibly. We most often refer to this concept in terms of a garbage clean-up or habitat restoration (like we’ll be doing with the Idaho Department of Fish & Game on April 23!). But there is a cultural resource management component as well that we may not consider nearly as often.

We all may have different reasons for loving public lands, but one thing that we can all agree on is that they are living and breathing history. A lot of us find a lot of joy in relishing the natural history, like the geology and ecology of the landscape, which we talk about in the Owyhee Geology Series. Others love to study the human history of a place: discovering old wagon routes or battle locations is the joy that public lands bring them. Many members of Tribal Nations cherish this land as their ancestral homelands, and they are the true steward as they have been caring for these places since time immemorial. I can only imagine what seeing physical reminders from their ancestors must be like. It’s our duty to share this land with people from all walks of life—a core belief here at Friends of the Owyhee—and that includes preserving these little pieces of the past, no matter how insignificant they seem… because they are anything but.

I really love how Liz Lynch from The Meateater summed up this point in her article, “Archaeology Explained: Can I Pick Up That Arrowhead?”:

However, I will say this: if you ever feel compelled to tip over a rock cairn, touch a rock art panel, or pocket an arrowhead or pottery sherd, you’re not just harming a cultural resource in a way that reduces its potential research value. You’re not only robbing any future hunters, hikers, and nature lovers of the same rush of excitement you felt finding it, either. On top of all that, you’re also removing one of the limited remaining physical traces of the histories of Native peoples who have been here for thousands of years, whose very existence has been systematically attacked for centuries. Uncomfortable as this truth may be, much of that erasure has been tied to the creation of what we now think of as “public lands,” a moniker which came at a terrible cost to those with the longest-lived relationships with those places. Please be respectful of Native American rights, histories, and living cultures and people by treating archaeological resources with respect.

On that note, I hope you think twice when you see one because I think it now goes without saying: leave the arrowhead.

PS: the arrowhead in the photo was replaced after the photo was taken.

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