California Drought Brings Looters to Tribal Sites

The Los Angeles Times reports that looters of ancient Maidu tribal sites are having a field day, as the California drought leaves water levels plunging to reveal hitherto hidden artifacts. As a result, monitoring areas that hold the artifacts has grown to combat stealing or disturbing the artifacts, which is illegal.

Kim Preston, 61, a volunteer with the California Archaeological Site Steward Program, said, “We've had people filling up buckets and taking them home. But you can't dig in a state park — not even with a spoon." Preston is one of several volunteers with the program, which originated in 1999 with a U.S. Bureau of Land Management archaeologist, then given to Beth and Chris Padon, owners of a Signal Hill archaeological consulting firm.

In 2002, Leslie Steidl, who is now the state parks archaeologist for the Northern Buttes District, pushed for the Northern Buttes District to join with the program. It was the first state park to do so. She said that the program helps park rangers, because it gives them "a whole other set of eyes that are just focusing on one thing… It's not our goal to keep people from enjoying the recreation," but rather to use the stewards "in protecting these cultural resources, so that for generations, people will have the opportunity to walk in these areas and actually see something." Steidl applied for a grant to train the stewards and eventually became the district archaeologist with over thirty volunteers reporting to her.

The Times explains:

Hugging the Feather River 70 miles north of Sacramento, Oroville for millenniums (sic) has been home to the Maidu, who thrived as hunter-gatherers until their way of life was upended. In 1848, just months after the strike at Sutter's Mill, John Bidwell discovered gold on the Middle Fork, and the town that would come to be known as Bidwell's Bar sprang up. With surface deposits exhausted, prospectors constructed small dams, flumes, and ditches to redirect the river and access its bottom riches. Remnants of the boom dot the region but were extensively surveyed only recently.

Areas left naked in reservoirs with plunging water levels are being examined for artifacts due to a 1966 law and because of federal re-licensing of the state Department of Water Resources that is necessary to operate hydroelectric facilities here.

In 2002 scientists from Cal State Sacramento and Sonoma State teamed with local tribes to start compiling an inventory of what was being found at the archaeologists' sites. Jacqueline Wait, a Department of Water Resources archaeologist, commented, "They've come to learn through the re-licensing surveys just how rich it is."

What is found will remain secret, though, because the artifacts are exempt from public records law, and stewards sign confidentiality agreements. One steward who works at the Lake Oroville visitor center, Joan Dobis, said, "I don't even tell my husband."

Cameras placed by the district photograph license plates of those who come to the areas; if rangers see looters, they cite them. Some looters are insomniac "tweakers" high on methamphetamine. Dobis said of them, "They just dig and dig like little squirrels."

Because site stewards aren't police, they cannot arrest anyone, so instead they pose as hikers, photographing looters, noting license plates numbers and radioing rangers if there is something that looks awry.

In the winter of 2014, Steidl found internet footage gleaned from a drone-mounted camera at Folsom Lake. The footage showed directions to find areas where the water level had dropped, and artifacts could be found. She said, "Right away I sent all those links to the rangers and said, 'We need to go back inside of the lake.'"

Steidl successfully urged the Padons to hold more training in May at Clear Lake State Park. Six of the 18 new stewards will focus on Lake Oroville, while the other 12 will be at three additional district parks.


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