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Ancient Trail in Arizona State Park

Culturally Priceless Native American Sites and Artifacts Have Been Willfully Destroyed By Arizona State Parks & Trails


Building visitor attractions is big money business in North America, so much so that Arizona State Parks & Trails has willfully destroyed Native American archaeological artifacts and sites, a state archaeologist has claimed.

In a world where we so often read harrowing headlines about bored teenagers committing acts of mindless cultural and archaeological vandalism, most recently an English tourist who spray painted an 800-year-old Thai temple, it comes as something of a shock when a powerful American woman is accused of destroying a string of ancient indigenous American Indian sites, especially when her motive is to hit financial targets for self-gain.

Archaeologist Whistle Blower

American archaeologist Will Russell is a highly-respected Historic Preservation Specialist with the Arizona Department of Transportation, and he recently blew the whistle on a string of archaeological atrocities telling reporters at The Arizona Republic that he had “repeatedly cautioned [Arizona State] Parks officials that they were violating the law and destroying artifacts.” Russell claims he was continually “overruled by top agency managers" and even “threatened with violence” by his supervisor, Parks Director Sue Black.

The agency’s core mission, according to archaeologist Russell, “is to protect and preserve natural and cultural resources, but we aren't doing any of that. We are just putting up cabins and making money.” According to a recent article in Arizona Central, the archaeologist claims that under Black’s direction the agency has “destroyed several archaeological sites,” including or example, in one agency memo he wrote “two ancient stone tools were disregarded at a 12,000-year-old archaeological site causing irreversible damage.”

Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park. (Tripadvisor)

Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park. (Tripadvisor)

Roads Over Remains

Another example is when Sue Black decided to build “a new road through a native American site at Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park near Yarnell, in 2016.” Russell immediately “warned her not to” but Black tactfully “removed him from his role as tribal liaison officer.” Then again at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, north of Payson, when Black instructed the building of “a garden in an archaeological site, after being told to wait for an archaeological investigation.” Russell wrote a memo stating, “the damage is irreversible, was not authorized, and was not monitored by a qualified archaeologist.”

Russell’s Concerns

Russell, who earned a Ph.D. anthropology at Arizona State University in 2016, left his job with Parks on October 15 having had enough of Sue Black who he said only “cares about is her image and making money… And she sees no point in collaborating with tribes.” Black has faced numerous allegations of “inappropriate and disrespectful behavior” and local newspapers have published stories of her “berating employees in front of other staff, disclosing confidential information, using racial slurs, getting drunk and belligerent while representing the agency at conferences, and circumventing the state procurement code.” And if its facts and figures you need before making a judgment on someone’s management skills, or lack of them, then you might consider that of the agencies 179 employees at the beginning of the year, no less than 118 have quit or been fired since Black was appointed in February, according to public records obtained by The Republic.

Tonto Natural Bridge in the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park just north of Payson, AZ. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Tonto Natural Bridge in the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park just north of Payson, AZ. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

When Russell suspected Black of willfully destroying archaeology he took his concerns directly to Bret Parke, the interim deputy director, who is also a lawyer at ADOA, with close ties to officials in the Governor's Office. Russell found it “curious that ADOA was only now investigating his claims after officials became aware that he had talked to  The Republic.” Russell says that Sue Black virtually imprisoned him “rarely permitted to leave the agency's central office to conduct archaeological surveys or do damage assessments at the state's 35 parks.

The Last Resort

Another conflict was sparked between Russell and Black over Parks land near Lake Havasu which had been slated for development into “the Havasu Riviera resort.” Again, Russell claimed “the land was bulldozed without proper archaeological compliance” but in a March 29 memo to state and federal agencies and several Native American tribes, questioning the activities, he said, “Black stormed into his office and screamed at him "'How dare you do this? This is a $300 million project, and you could have derailed the whole thing.” “Then she leaned over me with a clenched fist and asked me ‘What is your true intention?’”

Pottery from Homolovi Ruins State Park. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Pottery from Homolovi Ruins State Park. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This is when things get just plain creepy. The following day Jim Kegan, Deputy Director of the agency, a longtime friend of Sue Black's and who has a felony criminal record, “forced Russell to sign an apology letter” for sending to the agencies and tribes. Kegan wouldn't let Russell leave to collect his children from school until he signed the letter and Russell, ashamed, told reporters that “he's embarrassed he signed the letter… I never should have allowed that to happen,” he said.

Looking for middle ground in all this mess we might turn to someone as respected as Walter Varney, the agency's former chief of development. But Varney himself resigned from Parks in May and told reporters that archaeologist Will Russell is "very reputable in his field" and confirmed “Russell's allegations” were real, telling reporters "She [Black] was frustrated with the archaeological process” and cared only about “getting projects on the ground.”

London Bridge Lake Havasu Park. (CC0)

London Bridge Lake Havasu Park. (CC0)

The Legal Ground

The Arizona Antiquities Act prohibits defacing protected sites and artifacts and clearly outlines how archaeological and paleontological discoveries on state land should be dealt with. Russell said county attorneys, the state Attorney General and U.S. Attorney's Office prosecute alleged violations of that law, depending on where the violations are alleged to have occurred. So, what is being done with Black?

Not altogether unpredictably, ‘all’ of Black's cohorts “refuse to comment” to reporters, but what is known is that she was given a 9 percent pay rise to $175,000 per annum, while her predecessor was paid $136,000.  And rather than preparing defense notes with her lawyers in a low lit office into the wee hours, just a few months ago an article in the The Arizona Central celebrated Black for having “boosted the agency” and achieving “record attendance and revenue.”

The irony is complete. Justice must now be served. And here is hoping Black doesn’t have friends in higher places than she is currently leaning on.

Top image: Ancient Trail in Arizona State Park  Source: Public Domain

By Ashley Cowie



Gary Moran's picture

Governor Ducie (after pressure from the adverse publicity and tribal representatives) has apparenly completed his investigation and resigned? or fired Sue Black. Her cronie Kegan is no longer with the department either – no info as to whether he was terminated or left on his own.  No news as to whether either will be subject to criminal prosecution for their deliberate acts. 

Spent 25 years in Arizona, beautiful place, lots of history and artifacts. if this is true and greed is all that matters anymore we are in a sad state of affairs.

jolly r hansen

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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