The story you’re about to read exists because a small, green-gold chunk of obsidian exists. And because that piece of obsidian–chipped and shaped by hands unknown into a beautiful, elegant arrowhead shape–exists, a young man Upcountry now gets nervous when the phone rings. He does so, he says, because agents with the National Park Service who work at Haleakala National Park have taken to behaving like the U.S. Government at the end of Raiders of The Lost Ark.
Let’s back up a bit, to May of 2009. A dozen or so friends, including two guys named Bryan Axtell and Trevor Carter, are hiking Haleakala Crater. Somewhere near the switchbacks, in an area filled with washout, Carter–an experienced climber who, like Axtell, grew up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains–started exploring a bit off the trail. In fact, he ascended straight up, about 200 feet.
“I had a climbing bug,” Carter, who lives in Northern California, told me by phone. “I went off the trail, several hundred feet. There were piles of rocks, and this one stood out. I bend down to pick it up. It was a piece of obsidian, but when I started wiping it off, I saw that it was a spearpoint.”
Carter starting shouting for Axtell.
“He showed me a stone, covered in mud,” Axtell recalled. “I got my first aid kit and made the wrong the choice–I cleaned it with alcohol. You’re not supposed to do that, because it makes dating an artifact difficult.”
After clearing away the mud, Axtell and Carter realized they were holding what looked like a spearpoint. They’d seen plenty of them in the Sierras, but this was different. It was shaped out of a green-gold obsidian. It was unique and unusual, and possibly important.
By the time they and their friends hiked back to the park visitor’s center, Axtell and Carter said it was dark and no one was there. But when they called the Park Service the next morning and described what they’d found to the person who answered the phone, they got a less than enthusiastic response. “She said the Hawaiians didn’t have spearheads, but we could bring it in,” Axtell told me. Carter added that the employee told them that “they may or may not look at it.”
Carter said this bummed them out, and they decided not to take it back to the park, for a variety of reasons. “This was two days after my wedding,” Axtell said. “I had lots to do.”
Their decision would have lasting implications. After all, it’s a crime to take anything from a national park, but it’s especially risky to remove an artifact, and what they did could be seen as a violation of the 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA). “If resources are taken from a park then it is hard to understand the context of their natural or cultural history or how to best protect them,” said Haleakala National Park spokeswoman Pauline Angelakis in an email response to questions about this story.
But back in the spring of 2009, Axtell and Carter weren’t thinking of the possibility that they’d broken the law. They were more concerned with the spearpoint itself. Not getting rich off it, they told me (indeed, they never seem to have attempted to sell it), but learning what it was, and whether it was as important as they felt it was.
“I told Trevor he could take it,” Axtell said. “But he said no.”
“I flew back to California a couple days after we found it, and I wasn’t going to take it off the island,” Carter told me. “But I did go to Paia and have a tattoo of it traced onto my ribcage.”
Carter told me he hiked a lot in the mountains on the mainland, and had found Indian ground rocks before. But he said he got the tattoo because this spearpoint was different. “I knew this was something,” he told me. “I can’t explain it. It was heavy, big. It weighs at least a quarter pound. It has major significance.”
Carter and Axtell eventually put it in a wooden box with a key–a piece of paper with notes on where they’d found it, the conditions under which they’d discovered it and the signatures of everyone in the party that had found it. And there it sat, on Axtell’s martial arts weapons altar for a little over a year.
* * *
Today, Carter is a firefighter living in California. But Axtell still lives Upcountry. He teaches fire dancing, martial arts and art to kids as part of his Making A Difference Project. He has an intense gaze and a closely shorn beard that hugs his chin line. I sat down with him recently at Flatbread in Paia.
“This is where I met with an archaeologist from the Big Island who looked at the spearpoint,” Axtell told me. “It was late 2010, early 2011. She said, ‘It’s green? That doesn’t make sense.’ She said it was way too high quality. She called Dr. Janet Six [an archaeologist at UH Maui College] while we were here.”
Intrigued by what she heard, Six asked to see the spearpoint. “I expected to see a nice rock,” Six told me. “People are always showing me things. But this was green-gold obsidian. It wasn’t made in the park–someone put it there.”
Who exactly that someone might have been is a big unknown. Without knowing how old the spearpoint is, Six won’t speculate on who put it in the park. She said it was possible Axtell and Carter put it there, but added that given her discussions with them, and the fact that they never seem to have tried to get publicity from the spearpoint or sell it, she believed they were being honest about how they found it. She also said it was possible that a hippie put it into the park in the 1980s during a “harmonic convergence.”
“If we know it’s really old, we can look elsewhere in the park for others,” Six said. “But that still doesn’t tell us where it’s from. They found it in an odd place, off the trail.”
There’s another possibility, Six said. The possibility that ancient Hawaiians put it there. Not that they made it–Six said that while there is obsidian in Hawaii, it’s not like the obsidian of the spearpoint. No, Six said it was a possibility that pre-contact Hawaiians had themselves found it–in South America.
“Academics agree that Polynesians went to mesoamerica,” Six said.
The notion that Polynesians were skilled at the art of voyaging canoes long distances and became the first humans to visit Hawaii is well known. What isn’t so well known is the view that they continued to voyage ever eastward, and eventually landed in North and South America–what the Polynesians seem to have referred to as “the land of mist and frogs.”
There is compelling evidence for this. On Feb. 22, the History Channel aired an episode of its America Unearthed series that dealt with this theory–and the mysterious Haleakala spearpoint in particular. The show included footage of Terry Hunt, an archaeologist at the University of Hawaii, discussing the possibility that Polynesians traveled to and from the Americas long before Captain Cook ever “discovered” Hawaii.
According to Hunt, there’s evidence that the sweet potato–a delicacy in Hawaii–originally came from South America and the chickens of South America originally came from Polynesia. There is also evidence that the Polynesians had contact with the Chumash tribe in Southern California.
Axtell told me he had nothing to do with getting their spearpoint onto the History Channel. “I had no idea about the show,” Axtell told me. “I was in California and got a call saying the History Channel wanted to do a show on it.”
According to Six and Axtell, Six had shown the spearpoint to some of her students, and one of them had gone to the History Channel.
Axtell and Carter talked with the show’s producers, and agreed to go on camera and talk about their spearpoint. They would tell the story about how they found it and then give the spearpoint to host Scott Wolter, a “forensic geologist,” who would then put the spearpoint through a hydration test that would show its age. It was an expensive test, but the producers agreed to pay for it.
For Carter, going on the show was a “childhood dream come true.”
Filming Axtell and Carter (who would fly out from California to take part) would take place on Maui on Nov. 11, Axtell recalled. But a few days before that day, everything changed.
* * *
Sitting in Flatbread last week, Axtell remembered something Six had told him. “She said we needed to be careful who we showed the spearpoint to,” he told me.
Axtell said he had had no contact with officials from Haleakala National Park since the morning after his and Carter’s discovery. But Six had contacted park archaeologist Liz Gordon, and said she seemed interested in the find.
But Axtell said that when History Channel producers contacted the park and asked for permission to film there, they got a flat rejection. Park officials were apparently concerned that Axtell and Carter had gone off the trail, and asked if they’d been digging. Axtell and Carter denied that they’d been digging anywhere in the park. Eventually, Axtell concluded that he’d have to hand over the spearpoint.
“But if we gave it back, I wanted to do it on camera,” Axtell told me.
When the show’s producers told Axtell that Liz Gordon really wanted to meet with him, he agreed. They set up a meeting a few days before he was to film the episode. Gordon asked him to bring his notes and photos, Axtell said, but she also asked him to bring the spearpoint. He said he agreed (Angelakis, the spokeswoman with Haleakala National Park, would not comment on any specifics involving the spearpoint, citing “an ongoing ARPA investigation”).
“We met at the Pukalani Starbucks in Foodland,” Axtell said. “She indicated that she’d be alone, but I saw her come in with someone else, in plain clothes. I asked Gordon who her associate was, and she said she was a naturalist.”
Axtell said he then told them the whole story of how they found the spearpoint. Gordon and her associate (who later told Axtell her name was K. Ell) showed him topographical maps of the Haleakala Crater and asked him to show them where the discovery was made. “They kept asking if we were digging,” Axtell recalled. “After about 45 minutes of talking, Gordon asked if she could see it.”
Axtell said he then brought out the spearpoint, and Gordon and Ell immediately started photographing it. Then, Axtell said, their attitudes shifted, and they told Axtell that they couldn’t let him keep the spearpoint.
“I asked her for ID,” Axtell said. “She said, ‘How do you want this to go down?’ So I grabbed the artifact out of Gordon’s hand.”
“You just assaulted her!” Axtell said Ell, who was now saying she was a law enforcement agent, told him.
“You need to show me a badge!” Axtell said he shouted back to her. Axtell said officer Ell was reaching behind her, then slowly reached into a front pocket and pulled out a badge. When she did that, Axtell told me, he surrendered the spearpoint. Then he turned to Gordon and asked why she was doing this, considering that he’d always insisted to her that he intended to return the artifact on camera.
“She said she couldn’t trust me to bring it back,” Axtell said. He also said that Officer Ell told him to stay out of the park.
“I didn’t go back for eight, nine months,” Axtell told me. “I really love that park. ‘Let’s go hike the crater’ is something I said frequently. It’s my favorite place to take people.”
In any case, Axtell was freaked out. After the encounter with Gordon and Ell, he called Carter.
“It was two days before I was to fly out there, and I was at the firestation,” Carter recalled. “Bryan called me regularly, but this time I could instantly hear it in his voice. He was in hysterics. He was trying so hard to keep it together.”
Carter said they talked just a few minutes, and then Axtell had to hang up and compose himself. Carter then said he called the History Channel producers (Paula Engelking, one of the producers, did not return an email request for comment on this story by presstime). While he was talking to them about the seizure of the spearpoint, Carter said Axtell called, and they made it a conference call.
“What does this mean for the show?” Carter said he asked them. “Our concern is the park service coming after us.”
“I was nervous when I came back,” Carter told me. “I was worried that I was going to be taken when I got off the plane.”
As it happened, Carter arrived back on Maui without incident. Indeed, he said no one from the park service has contacted him. But after the park service, which had been talking with American Unearthed producers, seized the spearpoint, they suddenly refused to participate in the show. They also refused to grant the show permission to film in the park.
The producers told Carter the show would still go on. They were very helpful, Axtell said, but they also insisted that the guys not tell Wolter–the show’s host–ahead of filming that the spearpoint had been taken.
If you saw the America Unearthed episode, or go online to History.com and watch it there, you’ll see a scene shot at the Skyline Eco Adventures camp Upcountry where Wolter meets Axtell and Carter. You’ll see Wolter talk to the guys about how they found the spearpoint, and then you’ll see him ask Axtell for the spearpoint. Then Axtell gets nervous and tells Wolter that park officials seized it just days earlier, you’ll see Wolter express shock. It seems like an awkward, staged event typical for the documentary-style shows you see on cable.
Axtell and Carter say it was anything but.
“His reaction was completely real,” Axtell told me. “The producers had never told him.”
Carter said he and Axtell had felt bad about this–about having to brush off Wolter’s requests to see the spearpoint all day without telling him that they didn’t have it. “It was the end of the day when we filmed that scene,” Carter said. “I didn’t like keeping it a secret from the guy.”
When Axtell finally did tell Wolter on camera that the park service had taken the spearpoint from him, he and Carter say Wolter became furious.
“He started screaming, ‘We’re going up there!’” Axtell said. “He was furious! They had to calm him down. It took them four times to film that scene because he kept cursing. The producers didn’t tell him ahead of time because they said they wanted a genuine response. Wolter is not an actor.”
* * *
Only the National Park Service knows what happened to the spearpoint. Did they return it to the spot Axtell told them about? Are they conducting rigorous tests on it to determine its age and point of origin–tests the History Channel said they’d pay for? And why did park officials take so long to get serious about the spearpoint?
When I first called for a comment on all this, Haleakala National Park spokeswoman Pauline Angelakis wouldn’t say much, beyond repeating the phrase “There is an ongoing ARPA investigation” and insisting that she hadn’t watched the America Unearthed episode. When I asked her what became of the spearpoint, she said she didn’t know. Then a few hours later she sent me a email message on the case.
“There is an ongoing criminal investigation,” she said in the email, which she’s apparently sending out to anyone who asks about the America Unearthed episode. “As part of that case, the object you referenced was seized as evidence. Tests and analysis of this object are also part of the investigation. There is no typical time frame for how long an investigation lasts. The time frame varies on a case by case basis.”
Axtell and Carter said they’ve had no contact with anyone from the National Park Service since the November 2013 spearpoint seizure. In fact, they say park service officials have ignored their inquiries about the investigation.
“I just wish they’d tell people where they’re at,” Axtell told me. “I thought we were helping with a major discovery and then I’m threatened with being arrested. What the hell?!”