Moab • Near the bottom of a redrock canyon, not far from where Kane Creek empties into the Colorado River, Indigenous people returned to a prominent, cube-like boulder for over 3,000 years to inscribe intricate images on its faces.
Known as the Birthing Rock, the boulder features petroglyphs on all four of its accessible sides that date from the Archaic period to more modern Ute inscriptions, including dozens of ancestral Puebloan-era images, including a woman giving birth.
The canyon is popular with off-road vehicles, mountain bikers and hikers, and although it’s only protected by a low wooden fence, it remained free of the graffiti typical in other popular areas.
Sometime late Monday night or early Tuesday, however, vandals descended on the roadside rock and scratched it with obscenities, a crude penis and the words “white power” directly over the top of two anthropomorphic figures.
The Bureau of Land Management is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the vandalism.
“The BLM strongly condemns vandalism of cultural resources and is working with professional conservators to remove the offensive graffiti,” the agency said in a statement Tuesday. “To prevent further damage, please do not attempt to clean or remove the graffiti.”
The vandalism came several weeks after a rock climber from Colorado sunk metal bolts into a different petroglyph panel near Moab, sparking an uproar among Indigenous groups and the climbing community.
Len Necefer, a member of the Navajo Nation and CEO of Natives Outdoors, posted a 28-minute Instagram video on Tuesday that had nearly 40,000 views within 18 hours where he responded to both incidents and condemned a lack of education about Indigenous history in the U.S. schools.
“We are often given the sort of framing,” Necefer said, “that settlers came, there was … a little bit of conflict, the Native people taught the settlers how to grow corn, and then the Natives sort of moved off and went to reservations.”
That “middle school level” of understanding, he continued, is woefully inadequate and harmful.
“Since the inception of this country,” Necefer said, “literally the stated policy up until as late as the 1970s and 1980s … was genocide. And genocide isn’t just — it is killing a people — but it’s also the erasure of a people and their history from a landscape.”
Mike Grandstaff, a Moab-based guide who estimates he has taken 20,000 people onto public lands in the region over his career, called the defacement of the boulder an “effort to create disgust in the public.” The explosion of recreational use in the Moab area over the last 20 years has prevented land managers and conservation interests from keeping up with worsening impacts, he added.
“It’s easy for me to understand how a tourist who comes here for five days only sees five frames of a movie,” Grandstaff said, “and you can’t tell the plot from five frames. So consequently, people make decisions that are ignorant of that plot, which is causing the acceleration of land denuding that’s occurring in the area, as well as accumulation of giant amounts of human waste and all sorts of different impacts.”
Despite millions of visitors to the regional BLM land every year, Grandstaff noted that there is often only one law enforcement officer on duty to patrol 1.8 million acres.
Kent Williams, president of the volunteer-run Utah Rock Art Research Association, said the Birthing Rock has been nominated for the National Historic Register, though the effort stalled last year.
“[The panel] is very significant to a lot of folks in a deeply personal way,” Williams said. The petroglyphs that were damaged were at least 1,000 years old.
“It’s not common to see scenes depicted like that,” he said.
BLM Law Enforcement is accepting tips at 435-259-2131 or 800-722-3998, and the agency is offering anonymity to anyone who comes forward with information.
“The willful damage … is just appalling,” Williams said. “I hope the people who did it are caught and prosecuted to the fullest extent.”