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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: Inspiration and Impetus for Federal Legislation to Protect American Antiquities

Opening the western frontier of the United States for exploration and settlement of lands acquired through the Mexican War and the Louisiana Purchase brought national and international attention to the history and art of American Indians. Writings such as Adolph F. Bandelier's fictionalized account of American Indian life, and images by artist George Catlin also captured public interest about America's native people. Tales of Southwestern treasures made their way east, further fueling the public's imagination.

Popular exhibitions, such as the 1876 Centennial Exhibition held in Philadelphia to celebrate the first 100 years of our nation's founding, also drew attention to American Indian art and culture. Collectors were paid handsomely to provide genuine objects for the display. Spain's Columbian Historical Exhibition of 1892, heralding the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America, also piqued public interest. Other exhibitions and articles in both popular and scholarly publications, reporting on abandoned Southwestern pueblos and Indian artistic traditions, further attracted public curiosity.

The rush was on to acquire stone tools, decorated pottery and even the physical remains of ancient American Indians. Museums and private collectors alike willingly paid a high bounty for artifacts. Decorated pottery became a coveted treasure. While some excavations were thoughtfully and methodically conducted, no system or legislation regulated the recovery of artifacts and permits were not required. In some instances, little or no regard was given to the manner in which the objects were recovered. A few ruthless relic hunters went so far as to remove entire sections of ancient structures and transport them to waiting museums. Visitors freely wandered through ancient sites, unintentionally causing damage or collecting irreplaceable souvenirs of their visits. While the president of the United States had authority to set aside timberland from settlement, without appropriate laws he was powerless to protect the country's antiquities.

Fascination with American Indian culture and art was not restricted to the United States. The lure of making spectacular finds without the restrictions of federal laws also attracted foreign adventurers. Swede Gustav Erik Nordenskjold's interest was piqued when he learned of the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde, Colorado, the location of more than 4,000 archeological sites. Aided by Richard Wetherill, an American relic hunter, Nordenskjold spirited the large cache of prehistoric American Indian objects he collected back to Scandinavia. In the early 1900s, Dr. Jesse L. Nusbaum, superintendent of Mesa Verde National Park, fought for the return of the collection. His efforts were fruitless and the artifacts remain in Finland's National Museum to this day.

The first call for federal legislation to protect ancient sites came in 1882, prompted by Adolph Bandelier's study of Southwestern sites. Bandelier's report cites an ancient Pecos ruin of which he says, "In general, the vandalism committed in this venerable relic of antiquity defies all description." He told of intricately carved church beams that were "chipped into uncouth boxes, and sold, to be scattered everywhere. Not content with this, treasure hunters…have recklessly and ruthlessly disturbed the abodes of the dead." Scientists, along with political and public supporters, were alarmed by Bandelier's accounts of devastation caused by neglect and unsystematic recovery of irreplaceable artifacts. They petitioned Congress to protect America's Southwestern antiquities. The effort failed this time because legislators considered the country's southwest region too large to control.

A political tug-of-war over preservation laws continued over the next 25 years. Preservationists, concerned with conserving public land and resources, and opponents, who favored economic development of natural reserves, generated a flurry of legislative proposals and counter proposals.

The final proposed legislation, allowing the president speedy intervention to rescue lands designated as "national monuments" without the delay of Congressional approval, was hailed by supporters. Preservationists cheered the inclusion of authority to restrict archeological excavations and investigations only to qualified permit-holding experts using the most up-to-date techniques. In addition, they hailed the power to prosecute and penalize unauthorized excavators. In addition to historical sites, other types of places also would fall under the legislation's authority. These included geological and scientific wonders, such as caves, craters, and mineral springs; unusual geological formations; and other scientific features, including a grove of gigantic trees in California and a forest of petrified trees in Arizona.

Opponents argued that the law would grant the president unilateral power to prevent mining, logging, or other development of federal lands for private or commercial financial gain. Already critical of existing presidential power to set aside timber reserves, the opposition disapproved of legislation that threatened to bypass Congress or disregard states' viewpoints.

Despite these objections, public and scientific demands to protect America's antiquities won over. On June 8, 1906, the Antiquities Act, formally known as, "An Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities," was signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt, for whom conservation of our country's resources was a priority.

The Antiquities Act was amended in 1950 as part of a compromise to settle a dispute over increasing the size of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Area residents complained that a larger park would limit tax revenues. Cattle ranchers argued for crossing trails and grazing rights. The amendment states that no more national monuments can be created in Wyoming by presidential proclamation.

Debate over the Antiquities Act is not over. Presidential power to unilaterally designate national monument status under the Antiquities Act continues to be a tug-of-war between federal and local interests and between various uses of public lands. President Jimmy Carter's designation of Alaskan national monuments in 1978 was contested, as were several sites set aside by President William "Bill" Clinton from 1996 to 2000.

Questions for Reading 2

1. What was happening in the late 19th century to make scientists and others worry about the survival of ancient historic and cultural sites?

2. When was the Antiquities Act signed into law and by whom?

3. What did supporters like about the law? What were its opponents afraid of?

4. Why are no more national monuments allowed to be declared in Wyoming without Congressional consent? Do you think it is fair that one state may have an exception to the rule? Why or why not?

5. Give an example of how a presidential decision to designate a national monument can be controversial. Can you think of an example of a controversy over whether to protect a building or landscape or to develop it?

Reading 2 was compiled from Ronald F. Lee, "The Antiquities Act of 1906," 1970; The National Park Service brochure for Tonto National Monument, 1993; "Perspectives: The Politics of Public Land," Regulation--The Cato Review of Business and Government, Vol. 20, No. 4, 1997; Jackie Scaggs, "Creation of Grand Teton National Park," January 2000; Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, "Introduction to the Antiquities Act of 1906," electronic edition, January 2001; Kathleen D. Browning, "Implementing the Antiquities Act: A Survey of Archeological Permits 1906-1935," 2003; and Francis P. McManamon, "The Antiquities Act--Setting Basic Preservation Policies," CRM, No. 7, 1996.

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