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Notes from a Western Life
Ranging Far and Wide on the High Plains and Beyond
Linda M. Hasselstrom's Blog

Saving Craven Canyon

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This March the Black Hills National Forest asked for public comment on their recommendation to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to withdraw approximately 3,957 acres of National Forest System land from mining, to protect "cultural resources of significant interest" within and surrounding Craven Canyon in the southern Black Hills-- meaning the ancient pictographs carved and pecked into the canyon walls and the other archeological sites surrounding the canyon. The mineral withdrawal would also protect the plants and animals in the area.

Here is what I sent:

Thank you for sending the draft environmental impact assessment. I have studied it at length.

Some of my earliest memories are of walking down Craven Canyon to “the writings” with my grandmother, Cora Belle Hey. As we sat in the sun on a flat rock to eat lunch, she’d talk about the ancient people who once sat where we were. She came from a poor Ozark family and attended only a few years of grade school; I’m sure she never heard the phrase Mitakuye Oyasin ["We are all related"], but she knew those carvings were old and important, and she taught me to look but not touch. For hours, we’d speculate about the artists, who they were, what they were thinking as they chipped and painted. They were like us, she always said. I nearly became an archeologist because of those visits; instead I am a writer, an excavator of words.

My most recent visit was in November of 2008 with my uncle, George Hey, now 91. My grandmother Cora, his mother, taught him to protect those carvings. And on that trip, as on every single other trip I’ve made to the canyon, he pointed out carvings I’d never seen before. After living nearly 90 years in that canyon, if George is still finding new rock art, it’s hard to imagine what treasures may still exist in more remote spots in the proposed withdrawal region.

The Craven Canyon Mineral Withdrawal document notes, “The purpose of and need for action is to protect and preserve existing Native American cultural resources . . .” and later, “The most appropriate use for Craven Canyon and the purpose for its withdrawal from mineral activities are . . . to continue to serve the religious and cultural needs of Native Americans.”

George Hey told me about a time when a Native American encampment was created in the canyon. He went down to welcome the campers, including members of AIM, and found young Native Americans scrawling on the walls declarations like, ‘I AM AN INDIAN.’ He protested, and the mood of the people turned hostile.

My little white-haired uncle drew himself up and said, “That’s not right, to write on these walls. Those were your ancestors, and they were my ancestors. This place belongs to all of us.”

Those scribbled writings still deface one of the rock walls of the canyon, but my uncle is vigilant, and no new ones have appeared in years without his reporting the desecration to the proper authorities.

And that’s the important part of this irreplaceable cultural resource: it belongs to all of us. We have no idea what we might learn from what these ancient ancestors left behind. This is the Sistine Chapel of the Black Hills, of South Dakota, of the Great Plains. We wouldn’t allow mining exploration into our most sacred tabernacles, and it doesn’t belong here.

Every single person admitted to the region increases the risk of damage and loss. Both my uncle and Linea Sundstrom have mentioned several incidents of damage, in spite of the locked gates, my uncle’s vigilance, and heavy fines.

I first saw the drawings when I was five years old, sixty years ago. I remember the vividness of the colors, and the way the walls looked. I was once in the canyon, sitting below the big green floating antelope, when a pickup drove in and a man fired a high-powered rifle into the wall. I took a photograph in which his license plate was visible, but the local law enforcement officers weren’t interested in pursuing punishment. Only the Forest Service has been able to offer a measure of protection.

Every year, a few ignorant people manage to damage more of the art. Mining this region would create more roads, more access, and inevitably more damage of this kind. The area is remote; most access is still by gravel roads. And it’s broken and rough, so that even exploring with vehicles would do irreparable damage to the grass, the sparsely-covered hillsides, and the areas that might hold more caves, art, and camp sites. Extensive road-building would be required to mine anywhere inside the proposed closure, and once those roads were in place, they would allow public access into canyons, caves, and other secret spots still unexplored by archeologists.

As my uncle ages, it’s time for more formal management to protect this region. If funding does not allow for study at this time, I hope the site can be made as secure as possible, closed to public access. Limited public access might be possible after professionals have surveyed the area for more archeological sites, studied those sites already found, and provided for security for the archeological treasures that may exist.

Please choose Option 2, the only alternative in the draft environmental impact assessment that provides protection to all the cultural resources thus far recorded in the area, and new ones as yet undiscovered.

# # #

For more information:

Look for Linea Sundstrom's books, including Storied Stone: Indian Rock Art of the Black Hills


Some background information:

According to the draft environmental impact assessment:

There is a high potential for uranium and vanadium, a moderate potential for oil and gas, and a low potential for subbituminous coal in the proposed mineral withdrawal area. There is also a low potential for the mining of sand, gravel, clay and building stone, mainly because of the distances involved from Craven Canyon to a market for these products.

Alternative 1 -- do nothing. This would leave only 160 acres protected from a previous minerals withdrawal.

Alternative 2 -- withdraw 3,957 acres which would protect 100% of 46 known archeological sites of cultural and historical interest and would protect 621 acres of culturally significant viewshed. This would include 100% of the existing mining claims in the area in the withdrawal.

Alternative 3 -- withdraw 2,649 acres which would protect only 67% of 46 known archeological sites of cultural and historical interest and would protect only 473 acres of culturally significant viewshed. This would exclude 100% of the existing mining claims in the area from the withdrawal.

Once the Forest Service collects the public comments (the comment period closes in late March, 2010), they will make a recommendation to the BLM as to which alternative they suggest. The BLM will make the actual decision later this year.


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