Copeland, 57, is a senior archaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management's Farmington Field Office. He has spent his career learning about the origins of San Juan County's first inhabitants by studying and preserving hundreds of thousands of cultural sites east of Bloomfield.
But the "educated guesses" that provide fodder for Copeland's narrations are only part of the story.
"I enjoy sharing the information I have, but I want people to make their own connections," he said during an interview at the Farmington BLM office. "The public thinks you know everything when you wear that Smokey the Bear hat or the BLM uniform. But we don't know everything. A lot of it is educated guesses."
Copeland shares the part of the story preserved in the landscape, but he finds science often lacks emotions or human details.
"When I'm out there giving a tour or showing people around, I'll share with them what I know about it, but then I ask what they think," he said. "Sometimes I have to say I have no idea what it means."
That's when visitors to the area can provide input no archaeological training can, Copeland said.
Copeland started working as a park ranger in 1975 at Mesa Verde National Park. He's worked as an archaeologist in areas across the Southwest, including a stint with the Navajo Nation before settling down with the Farmington BLM office in 1991.
He was recognized in May
An early start
Copeland's first visit to the area was a trip at age 4 to the Aztec Ruins.
Born in Virginia to a military family, Copeland stopped here briefly during a cross-country move with his parents from one naval base to another.
He found his first artifact when he was in second grade in California. It was an obsidian arrowhead.
Even then, Copeland didn't realize the uniqueness of this area until 1991, when he took a job with the BLM's Farmington Field Office, which covers most of northwest New Mexico.
"Much of what's out there in terms of early Navajo history and archaeology is found nowhere else in the American Southwest," he said of Largo Canyon. "What's out there is tens if not hundreds of thousands of archaeological sites ranging from very old 6,000- to 8,000-year-old campsites to Navajo defensive sites built in the 1700s to protect themselves from other Native American groups. Then there are Anasazi pueblos and pit houses and the Navajo rock art, which is spectacular."
The Navajo call the area Din tah, Copeland said. It's the place where the Navajo, according to tradition and history, became the Navajo.
"It's where the clans came together, where they were given their language, their ceremonies," he said. "It's remarkable for the Navajo to be able to see these sites. It's very edifying for them, from their point of view."
From a scientific point of view, the relationship of the Navajo to the past and to the land is what makes archaeological work here different than any other place.
"Here we have eyewitness accounts, records, oral stories passed down through
The work is not all about digging with trowels and picking up shards of pottery, said Peggy Gaudy, a BLM archaeologist who has worked with Copeland since 1991.
"You use a lot of bug spray, eat a lot of dust, drive over a lot of bumps," she said. "There's snakes, dust, heat and cold."
But comfort means nothing when an archaeologist comes across a significant find, Gaudy said.
"It's finding evidence that someone lived here," she said.
San Juan County is home to the largest collection of Navajo artifacts and historical sites. Because of its proximity to the Navajo Nation, where people continue to celebrate the unique culture, the Largo Canyon area may be one of the most interesting places to do archaeology field work, Copeland said.
It's also right in the heart of oil and gas country, which means the BLM has to balance mineral rights with cultural preservation.
One of Copeland's favorite projects is his work with the Chaco roads, or "glorified foot trails" that connect Chaco Culture National Historical Park with other historic structures including Aztec Ruins, Salmon Ruins and Mesa Verde.
Most of these roads are short, less than two miles long, Copeland said, and link buildings with religious structures or sacred land.
Two major roads are different from all the others. A road goes south from Chaco, a place protected by the National Park Service, and another road goes north.
Although once thoroughfares in the area, the roads are difficult to see from the ground.
"Unless they were extremely overengineered, 900 or 1,000 years of wind blowing sand and dust tends to obscure things," Copeland said. "You can see them in aerial photography because there's enough difference in the vegetation."
The BLM started researching the roads in the late 1970s, Copeland said. In recent years, Copeland and some of his colleagues have revived research on the north road.
"We wanted to try to answer some questions that had been left unanswered," he said. "It was important that we try to figure something out before we worked with industry. The question was how do we preserve its important scientific and traditional values and still allow industry to access materials that they have legal rights to?"
Protecting the resources
Much of what the Farmington BLM office does revolves around the oil and gas industries, Copeland said.
Although some of the most exciting parts of Copeland's job come from cultural discoveries, day-to-day operations usually involve putting a stamp of approval on industrial development on public land.
Copeland calls it "managing the cultural resources in the face of use of the land."
"There are federal preservation laws," he said. "Before the BLM issues a permit to drill a well, build a road, dig a mine, we have to take into consideration the effects of that action on significant cultural sites."
The BLM logs information in public databases and at the state museum.
Coupled with that, however, is the solemn responsibility to preserve historic sites and artifacts and work with tribes to ensure findings get proper care.
"A great deal of what we do is geared toward the preservation and conservation of those sites and places, dealing with natural threats through erosion and time, the criminal threats, development and people loving them to death," Copeland said.
Because cultural sites on public land are not protected by agencies like the National Park Service, the BLM relies on other methods to keep significant discoveries safe.
Some of the sites are marked on maps and open to public visitation. Others are not easily accessible and are protected simply because people don't know how to find them, Copeland said.
"What has helped to preserve so much of that country, the sites and rock art and the old forts and homesteads, is that it's relatively remote," he said. "It's not very close to the tri-city area, so you don't get the party people out there. You really have to want to see it, you have to drive 30, 40, 50, 60 miles, and then sometimes hike quite a bit."
It's not uncommon for a wall to crumble after a hard rain or rough winter, Copeland said.
"We try to keep a handle on some of those so there's something there to tell the story," he said. "Things change. They come and go," he said. "We should be able to manage some of that so we don't forget what happened."
A lifetime of discovery
Copeland last month received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the state Historic Preservation Division in recognition of his passion for archaeology and public outreach. The award came because of Copeland's penchant for going "beyond (his) duty as lead archaeologist for the Bureau of Land Management by sharing (his) knowledge with the community."
Copeland also has assisted in criminal investigations of looting and vandalism of cultural sites.
"Jim's dedication to the cultural resources program of the Farmington area is exemplary and most deserving of this recognition," Dave Evans, BLM district manager, said in a prepared statement.
The award was presented during the Historic Preservation Division's 40th annual awards ceremony.
"I'm still having fun, still enjoying it," he said of his work. "I think one of my most professionally satisfying accomplishments has been the work that I've done or that I have helped others accomplish pertaining to the preservation and study of early Navajo history and archaeology in the ancestral Navajo lands of Dinetah."