What is lost when cultural sites are bulldozed?

Southwestern tribes learn of possible heritage destruction at the hands of Arizona State Parks and Trails.


In July, Will Russell drove out to Lake Havasu State Park and, for a moment, thought he was lost. The western Arizona landscape he knew from past visits — a gentle, sloping hillside with shallow drainages, just across the Colorado River from the Chemehuevi Indian Reservation — was gone.

“It’s literally bulldozed flat,” Russell said. According to archaeologists, the Lake Havasu site held evidence of stone tool manufacturing, along with a dwelling’s foundation — artifacts pointing to ancestors of the Chemehuevi, Colorado River and Fort Mojave tribes and possibly others. “The trees and rocks are gone, perfectly level, and there are no features,” Russell said. “It looks like they’re about to put a shopping mall in or something.”

The culprit behind the bulldozing was Arizona State Parks and Trails, the agency whose director, Sue Black, was fired by newly re-elected Gov. Doug Ducey, R, on Friday. Russell says the Lake Havasu area was only one of dozens of archaeological sites the agency damaged during his short tenure as its cultural resource manager. Russell’s attempts to enforce archaeological review processes were thwarted by Black, he said, who ignored his recommendations and even threatened him. He left the agency in October.

After his departure, Russell released copies of emails and memos alleging that the agency, under Black’s supervision, violated the Arizona Antiquities Act and other laws in order to quickly develop parkland. The state’s attorney general began a criminal investigation into the department earlier this month. Now, both Black and Jim Keegan, the agency’s deputy director, are out. Parks and Trails declined to comment for this story, and the governor’s office did not respond to High Country News’ requests.

As the investigation continues, nearby tribal nations and Indigenous state representatives are left to wonder how much of their history has been scraped from the earth.

“Basically, we’re kind of outraged,” said Charles Wood, chairman of the Chemehuevi Tribe. Wood said he received no communication from Parks and Trails before, during or after the construction near Lake Havasu. He heard about it only after a member of his staff texted him an October article from the Arizona Republic, a paper that has investigated the agency for months.

Near Windsor Beach at Lake Havasu State Park, Arizona State Parks and Trails bulldozed an area that archaeologists believe used to have artifacts from the ancestors of the Chemehuevi, Fort Mojave, and Colorado River tribes.
Courtesy of Will Russell

“The process wasn’t followed, and in my reading of it, there was clearly a violation of state law,” Wood said.

Arizona passed its own Antiquities Act in 1927, about 20 years after the federal version, to quell the rampant excavation of Indigenous sites by researchers who invariably shipped artifacts back east to museums. The act has evolved since, and archaeologists agree that most departments comply with it. “It seems like it’s a small handful of people who think they’re above the law,” said David Hart, president of the Arizona Archaeological Council.

But archaeological protection often requires compromise: Developers want to develop, archaeologists find only certain sites significant, and tribes have broader historical and legal claims to the land. Though the archaeological significance of the Lake Havasu site is only partially understood, Chairman Wood said the area connects tribal members with their ancestors.

“These were parts of home,” he said, referring to regions along the Colorado River, including areas affected by Parks and Trails. Wood wrote to Ducey, calling for Black’s firing, and he said the tribe might consider legal action.

Four Arizona state representatives and members of the Indigenous People’s Caucus also wrote to the governor, calling for a criminal investigation in order to regain “any trust lost among the tribal nations of Arizona." Before being fired, Black was placed on leave just days after the letter, but the representatives still haven’t received a response.

State Sen. Jamescita Mae Peshlakai, D, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, said she hopes the investigation has tangible consequences. “If that means time in jail, then let it be so,” she said. “This case needs to be a deterrent for all other states departments to not do such a thing.” State Rep. Wenona Benally, D, also of the Navajo Nation, said the alleged violations point to larger problems in Parks and Trails — including possible partnerships with mining companies — that she wants to combat.

Cabins being installed at Lake Havasu State Park.
Courtesy of Arizona State Parks & Trails

Wood, who has been the Chemehuevi chairman for 11 years, said he receives multiple archaeological review requests every week. In the 1850s, the Chemehuevi Tribe’s lands were considered public domain, and the reservation was shrunk multiple times during the early 20th century. Agencies not only follow the law when they consult with tribes; they also recognize that historic tribal territories are far greater than the boundaries of modern-day reservations.

Still, Wood has to work to get this point across. Once, a university archaeology student seeking a research site asked him for the locations of ancient burial grounds. He replied that he’d divulge the information if the student was comfortable digging up their own grandmother.

No matter how rare the blatant nature of the alleged violations by Parks and Trails, they leave a lasting bitterness with Wood. “It kind of feels like we’ve given, and given, and given,” he said, speaking of historic tribal lands. “And then to see something like this happen, it’s just a slap in the face.”

Thumbnail image: Lake Havasu supports a steady tourism economy in western Arizona. Andrew Wilkinson/Flickr

Elena Saavedra Buckley is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

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