Archaeologists say state parks department destroyed antiquity sites

Criminal investigation opened; governor suspends Director Sue Black

Recent construction efforts at Lake Havasu State Park may have caused untold damage to ancient Native American antiquities, according to a former Parks archaeologist. (Brandon Messick/ Today’s News-Herald)

Recent construction efforts at Lake Havasu State Park may have caused untold damage to ancient Native American antiquities, according to a former Parks archaeologist. (Brandon Messick/ Today’s News-Herald)

LAKE HAVASU, Ariz. — After two former state archaeologists accused the State Parks and Trails Department of deliberately destroying Native American Antiquity sites to build cabins for profit, Director Sue Black has been suspended and a criminal investigation has been opened.

According to former Parks and Trails compliance officer and tribal liaison Will Russell, the agency frequently circumvented state requirements and proceeded with construction on numerous development projects without consulting the tribes.

Russell worked as a compliance officer for Parks and Trails until Oct. 15, when he ultimately resigned from the agency in protest. He filed his complaint with the Arizona Department of Administration this month.

Prior to construction of Lake Havasu State Park’s cabins and restroom areas, Russell warned parks managers of native artifacts at the site, echoing a 2006 survey from the Arizona Department of Transportation, which held similar findings about the area.

“There was an area where they wanted to stockpile trash and materials. I said there’s an archaeological site there that would require remediation. They said they’d look into it, and I took them at their word. When I was back out there a few months later, they had a bulldozer there. I warned them numerous times, verbally and in writing to avoid that area … Every time I went, there was a new construction project,” Russell said.

According to Russell, ancestral Native American antiquities existed in the Havasu region before the construction of Parker Dam in 1938. Ancient native trails still existed along Havasu’s present waterline, and geoglyphs were present throughout the surrounding area. Stone blocks, used by natives to craft tools and as workstations for food manufacture, were also among the antiquities damaged in the state park’s recent construction efforts.

“These sites are very important to Native American culture,” Russell said. “It’s rare to have such communities living so close to their ancestral sites … I ended up trying to find projects, and (Parks Director Susan Black) was hiding them. I’d hear about illegal projects after the fact and play catch-up, then apologize to the tribes, trying to make the best of a horrible situation.”

According to Russell, Black rarely consulted with tribes in the Havasu region, and Russell was eventually removed from his position as tribal liaison.

After Russell went public with multiple allegations of misconduct, another former employee said she too raised several issues with the Parks department only to be ignored.

According to the Arizona Republic, Paula Pflepsen, the agency's cultural resource manager from 2014 to February 2017, said Black allowed development projects in at least three state parks without first conducting the required archaeological surveys.

Pflepsen told reporters the department had a goal of building 200 cabins quickly to turn a profit, and had no intentions of following the state’s Antiquities Act. She alleged the department built cabins at both Kartchner Caverns State Park and Alamo Lake without conducting an archaeological survey required by law.

According to the Arizona Republic article, both Russell and Pflepsen said Black frequently prohibited them from leaving the agency's central office in north Phoenix to monitor and assess the state's 35 parks. They also alleged Black and Keegan deliberately avoided communicating with tribes because tribes got in the way of development.

The allegations by Russell and Pflepsen prompted four state lawmakers, all members of the Indigenous People’s Caucus, to call for a criminal investigation and for Black’s removal.

In a letter delivered to the governor’s office, Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai and Reps. Sally Ann Gonzalez, Wenona Benally and Eric Descheenie called the department’s actions an affront to all indigenous people in Arizona and requested U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Strange and Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich to investigate violations of the Arizona Antiquities Act under Black’s tenure.

On Nov. 1, an investigation was opened and Gov. Doug Ducey suspended Black and Deputy Director Jim Keegan with pay indefinitely. The current accusations of misconduct aren’t the first ones leveled at Black. Numerous complaints have been recorded, including that Black publicly berated employees, made inappropriate racial remarks or slurs, drank excessively while representing the state agency at conferences and violated state procurement codes. She has never faced any major disciplinary actions, and Ducey has remained supportive since he appointed her in 2015.

Peshlakai, who called the allegations against Black a serious issue for tribes, tweeted Nov. 1 that the investigation and suspension was a good first step and echoed her previous call for transparency in the investigation. Two federal lawmakers, Reps. Tom O’Halleran and Ruben Gallego, have publicly called on Black to step down, along with the Chemehuevi Tribe, whose reservations is just west of Lake Havasu City.

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