Pilfered artifacts, three suicides and the struggle over federal land in Utah

For decades, the empty desert region at the junction of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico — known as the Four Corners — was a free-for-all for treasure hunters looking to pick the region clean of Native American artifacts.

Then on the morning of June 10, 2009, federal agents arrived in force in Blanding, Utah.

Just as the morning light was creeping in on the tiny town, more than 100 agents reportedly fanned out. They pounded on doors at eight houses in town, while other members of the FBI and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) executed similar raids across the region. Twenty-three men and women were scooped into custody, the fruit of a 2½-year investigation.

The locals, accused of pilfering ancient artifacts from the surrounding desert, were charged with violating the federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Authorities recovered more than 40,000 artifacts, some dating to 6,000 B.C.

The federal sting — dubbed Operation Cerberus by authorities — would prove to be the match igniting long-simmering tensions across the region.

For Native American groups, the raid was the first step in a much-needed crackdown on looting in a unique archaeologically-rich region. Concern about the illegal artifact trade was instrumental in the Obama administration’s decision in December 2016 to designate the area targeted by the operation as the Bears Ears National Monument, named for a pair of buttes that resemble the ears of bears.

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