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On Opposite Sides of Petroglyph Point

Park: Vandalism, a symbol of rift between U.S. officials and community, threatens ancient art.


TULELAKE, Calif. — Carved into the soft side of a ridge that soars high above surrounding farmland, ancient Indian petroglyphs are disappearing beneath a blanket of modern graffiti.

Archeologists say the circles, dots, lines and squiggles at Petroglyph Point are spiritually laden symbols that were carved by Modoc Indians centuries before they were driven from this remote corner of northeastern California by the U.S. Army in 1873.

Federal park rangers say the modern initials, names and slogans threatening to obliterate the ancient carvings also are symbols--of the hostility the local community feels toward the federal agencies that control huge tracts of land in Tule Lake Basin.

Over the years, local residents and the occasional tourist have cut their initials beside the petroglyphs, chipped whole chunks of them out of the rock, even used them for target practice, says Craig Dorman, superintendent of Lava Beds National Monument, a 46,500-acre expanse that includes the point.

"Petroglyph Point is a disgrace," says Dorman, who has been in charge of Lava Beds for four years, a wild place strewn with black lava rocks and riddled with miles of subterranean caves.

Although many Native American petroglyphs are found in California and other states, those on Petroglyph Point are rare because they are so plentiful, so densely placed and so geometric. Only Modoc Indians restricted their carvings to geometric shapes.

"People who study rock art come from all over the world to see these, because there are none like them anywhere else," says Gary Hathaway, the park's chief interpreter.

"But just as it was a cultural thing for the Modocs to carve these spiritual symbols, it is a cultural thing now for people to drink beer, chew tobacco, carve their initials into the point. It's disgusting."

Over the years, the impact of the graffiti has been compounded by topsoil blowing against the point from neighboring farmland--in effect sandblasting the ancient carvings.

Dorman blames the vandalism partly on the National Park Service's failure to combat a sense of alienation by the community from the national treasures in their midst.

"A lot of people in this basin have a possessory feeling about Lava Beds, and they feel that they were disenfranchised years ago," Dorman says. "This park dropped out of the community because of budget cutbacks or whatever. We stopped going out to the schools, stopped inviting the community here, stopped making them feel welcome."

The result, he says, has been increasing friction between locals and park rangers whenever they do cross paths.

Residents and Rangers at Odds

Over the years, rangers have seen the monument's directional signs ripped out or riddled with bullets, found residents flouting prohibitions against carrying loaded weapons or collecting Indian artifacts and caught them speeding along its miles of narrow, winding roads or using the park without paying entrance fees.

The residents complain of gun-toting rangers treating them with disdain. They talk of being pulled over and cited for minor infractions that are often overlooked if the driver is an out-of-towner. They speak bitterly of federal officials choosing to live on monument property or up the road in Oregon rather than in tiny Tulelake.

For many residents of Tule Lake Basin--a place where neighbors might belong to an anti-government militia or believe federal income taxes are unconstitutional--the sight of armed federal agents is galling.

All told, a half-dozen federal agencies police and manage the Lava Beds, a national forest, two national wildlife refuges, thousands of acres of farm and range land and a massive irrigation project that lie within Tule Lake Basin or touch its borders.

Stretching south from the Oregon border, the basin is edged by the Lava Beds to the west and Modoc National Forest to the east and south.

Some 400 square miles of high desert, the basin--with only 1,500 people--is "a gem tucked into the brush," said Siskiyou County Agriculture Commissioner James Massey Jr.

"We are proud of the fact that there are more cows than people up here," Massey said. The farms, most of them small, family-owned and located partly on federal land, grow some of the nation's finest potatoes and horseradish.

Many of the folks who farm here are the children of World I or World War II veterans, fiercely self-reliant people who love the uncrowded roads, big skies and the majestic view of snow-capped Mt. Shasta crowning the Cascades.

"It's like 'Cheers,' " said Tulelake Mayor Mike Bunch, 39, a native son who owns the town's only auto parts store. "Everybody knows your name."

Everybody, that is, except the federal agents who rotate through the basin every few years.

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