Federal Agents target objects, not looters

These grinding stones had been used by some to line their driveways
These grinding stones had been used by some defendants to line their driveways

The Salt Lake Tribune follows up on the status of the objects seized during the four-corners antiquities operation. The Federal government seized some 6,000 allegedly-looted antiquities, but has no clear victim or community to return them to in most cases.

The Salt Lake Tribune has video of a curator for the Bureau of Land Management supervising the warehouse where these objects are located. She shows the corn grinding stones which were removed from their context and had been used by some of the defendants to line their driveways.

Changing the attitudes in these communities is a crucial step to reducing the looting. And Federal officials are primarily seizing the material, without it seems the benefit of any broader education initiatives or criminal sanctions:

In Blanding and surrounding counties, residents once openly gathered artifacts and such collecting was considered a legitimate family activity. The laws changed in the 1970s, criminalizing the removal of artifacts from tribal and federal land.

But looting persisted, to the dismay of archaeologists and American Indians. Graves were a favorite target because they tend to yield intact objects buried with the dead.

The point of the “Operation Cerberus” investigation was not to jail looters, BLM officials said, but to rein in the illegal antiquities trade.

“You can’t put [an artifact] back, but it is forever out of the black market. This effort was to start unraveling it where it started,” said Smith, an archaeologist who served as BLM’s Canyon Country district manager at the time of the 2009 raids.

Will simply securing objects, without seeking to prosecute and jail individuals be an effective criminal response? It remains to be seen, but indications from the communities themselves seems to suggest that the local communities have not embraced the Federal government’s position.

Brian Maffly, A trove of looted artifacts, five years after BLM raids in Utah, Salt Lake Tribune Jun 29, 2014.

Student Essay on NAGPRA and ‘culturally unidentified’ human remains

Matthew Birkhold has won the National native American Law Students Association’s 10th annual writing competition with an assay published in the William Mitchell Law Review. From the Introduction:

In recent years, NAGPRA’s characteristic equilibrium has fallen out of balance. In an effort to restore the law’s equipoise, the Department of the Interior published a new final rule, effective May 14, 2010, delineating procedures for the disposition of culturally unidentified Native American human remains in the possession or control of museums and federal agencies. In this attempt, however, the new law swung too far. By evaluating the new rule’s impact on culturally unidentified human remains, this article interrogates the notion that the new regulation is an “important step toward fulfilling the intent of Congress as expressed in NAGPRA.” Because NAGPRA itself is silent on the appropriate disposition of culturally unidentified remains, the only guidance about the intent of the new law comes from the legislative history of the Act, the Department of the Interior, and the courts. Each source establishes NAGPRA as human rights legislation designed to protect Native Americans’ rights and demonstrate respect for remains while achieving an agreeable counterpoise between the competing interests of the Native American and scientific communities.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

NAGPRA complaint against UMass

Gale Courey Toensing for Indian Country Today reports on a NAGPRA complaint against the University of Masachusetts:

A complaint against the University of Massachusetts Amherst, claiming violations of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is under investigation and will be heard at a Review Committee meeting in the fall.


The complaint was filed jointly by Tribal Historic Preservation Officers Cheryl Andrews-Maltais of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, Aquinnah; John Brown III of the Narragansett Indian Tribe; and Sherry White of the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians in May 2008. Andrews-Maltais has since been elected chairwoman of her tribe. . . .


The complaint says that UMass Amherst has violated NAGPRA by failing to respond to the tribes’ request for repatriation of human remains from the Connecticut River Valley that are in its possession, and failing to consult with the tribes.


The joint complaint also says the university failed to publish a complete inventory of the human remains and other items of cultural patrimony in its possession, and claims the remains from the Connecticut River Valley listed in its partial inventory are “culturally unaffiliated” even while admitting that the three tribes had a historical presence in and historical ties to the area, and that they are the only federally recognized tribes with standing to claim the remains.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Backlash over Federal Arrests in the Southwest

https://i1.wp.com/www.delsjourney.com/images/news/news_02-07-01/2-3855_Butler_Wash.jpg?resize=420%2C280Brendan Borrell has an interesting piece for Scientific American following up on the number of arrests which focused on the theft of Native American objects from the four corners region, which has been described as a massive outdoor museum.  Pictured here are the Butler Wash ruins near Blanding. 

Two Utah senators, Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett have both called on Congress to investigate the actions of the federal agents surrounding the arrests, which led to one apparent suicide, the raid of one home for 10 hours, involving 300 agents and a SWAT team. 

One of those arrested, Brent Bullock tells Scientific American, “I’m guilty of arrowhead collecting, as is two-thirds of this town.”  It seems he:

[T]ried to sell a blanket fragment, fireboard, and stone hoe known as a Tchamahia. In a phone interview, he said that, like Lacy, he was also asked to identify the spot where the items were obtained and he subsequently signed a Letter of Provenance.  He says agents later showed up at his house, placed his arrowheads and other artifacts in bags, and photographed them although they did not have permission to seize his or any other artifacts yet. “They ripped this place apart,” he says. “This town is all stirred up.”

Criminal penalties may help to ease the taking of objects from these sites, but they also create a great deal of anger and resentment.  I think rather than just focusing on the arrests and the backlash, we should also pay attention to much of the education and outreach being conducted.  Were all of these individuals really hardened criminals, bent on destroying archaeological heritage to sell antiquities?  I’m sure some may have been, but the investigation seems to be failing spectacularly at convincing at least some local residents the importance of heritage preservation.  What will happen when the attention of federal authorities goes elsewhere?  Criminal penalties are important, and certainly justified in many cases.  But I would like the attention being paid to this controversy to focus on some practical initiatives that can do a lot of good before looting and destruction take place.  Take a few examples such as:  volunteer programs, initiatives such as the Comb Ridge project, and continued recruitment of site stewards
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

More on the Four Corners Indictments

The LA Times has more on the 24 indictments unsealed yesterday by federal authorities.  The individuals were charged both under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act.  The press release is here, which has the names of the defendants, and some of the arrest warrants.  I find it noteworthy for at least two reasons.

First, this seems to be the familiar problem with heritage preservation just about anywhere in the world—helping local residents understand the importance of preserving objects—and not removing them.  In the case of thisarea, there are artifacts, pots, baskets, textiles, axe-heads and other objects often are well-preserved by the dry air, and in some cases aren’t even buried.  I think these arrests are a welcome development, but they aren’t going to be the best or only solution.  These extensive criminal investigations help raise the profile of the problem, but as I’ve argued elsewhere; they aren’t a solution.  These elaborate criminal investigations are expensive, and require a great deal of resources.  I’m not sure either that we can guarantee that these will continue.  I’d like to see these arrests followed by some outreach explaining to the residents of these and other rural communities why these objects need to remain where they are, so they can be preserved for future generations. 

Most of those indicted were residents of Blanding, Utah, which according to wikipedia has the benefit of nearby monuments such as the Natural Bridges National Monument, Monument Valley and the Four Corners area, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (Lake Powell), Cedar Mesa archaeological and wilderness area, the San Juan River including Goosenecks State Park, and the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park. It is located approximately 1 hour south of the popular recreation hub, Moab, and Arches National Park.

As the piece in the LAT notes:

Southwest residents have been scooping up artifacts for generations. Since the early 20th century, settlers were even encouraged to dig up arrowheads, pottery and other remains. In the 1920s the University of Utah paid Blanding residents $2 per ancient pot.

Federal authorities estimate that 90% of the 20,000 archaeological sites in San Juan County, where Blanding is located, have been plundered.

According to a search warrant affidavit, the FBI and Bureau of Land Management in October 2006 developed “a major dealer of archaeological artifacts” as a source who would help them unravel the informal network of pot hunters profiting off the land’s history. Authorities wired the dealer to record the transactions.

Second, the Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazer was at the news conference, in what seems to be a high-profile attempt to highlight how seriously federal authorities are taking the looting of Native American sites.  These charges arose as part of a two-year investigation.  This indicates a dramatic departure from one of the final acts of the Bush administration, which was to pardon a Utah man for stealing objects from Native American territory. 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Threedy on the Role of Storytelling in NAGPRA Repatriation

Debora L. Threedy, University of Utah College of Law, has a piece in the Journal of Land, Resources and Environmental Law, Vol 29 No 1 (2009), CLAIMING THE SHIELDS: LAW, ANTHROPOLOGY, AND THE ROLE OF STORYTELLING IN A NAGPRA REPATRIATION CASE STUDY.  Here is the abstract:

  After some odd twists and turns by the end of the twentieth century the shields were in the possession of Capitol Reef National Park. At that point, three claims were filed for repatriation of the shields under the auspices of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA or the Act). 

In this paper, I use the controversy surrounding the repatriation of the three shields as the basis for examining the question of who owns the past. In particular, I examine how the repatriation process under NAGPRA addresses that question. I do this through the methodology of a case study. Because of the fact-intensive inquiry required under NAGPRA, and because NAGPRA repatriation cases are not typically resolved through court litigation, a case study seems an appropriate way to proceed with this examination.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Bad Connections

The New York Times‘ Edward Rothstein has an odd article today entitled “Antiquities, the World Is Your Homeland“, in which he essentially repackages James Cuno’s arguments, and makes some questionable assertions. Rothstein is the critic-at-large for the NYT, and he may be very good at what he does, but his foray into cultural policy today is not very thoughtful, and presents an unhelpfully biased view. Perhaps some of his other writing is very good, I’ll confess I don’t read classical music or his other reviews very often, but this appears to be an article he was in a hurry to get in before a deadline.

First, he makes a major blunder by confusing cultural property with cultural heritage. He mistakenly argues that nations of origin view antiquities as cultural property. Not so, in fact most would use the term heritage, or an approximation of that in their native language. I think cultural property is a narrower subset of a larger body of what can be called cultural heritage.

Second, he roundly criticizes the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA):

In the United States, for example, the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act required every museum getting public funds to survey its collections; identify Indian remains and funerary, sacred and other objects; and consult with Indian tribes and ”repatriate” the artifacts if requested. Such objects may have been legitimately purchased a century ago from the tribes or have no issue clouding their provenance, but claims of ordinary property give way before claims of cultural property. The grievous sins of the past are now being repaid with a vengeance. And the risks of repatriation and the requirements of tribal consultation have led to promotional, uninformative and self-indulgent themes in exhibitions about American Indians.

I find it unlikely human remains were legitimately purchased, but perhaps they were. He ignores perhaps the most important aspect of NAGPRA. It facilitated a helpful dialogue between museums and tribes to create workable relationships which can help undo some of the mistreatment of the past, an important benefit Rothstein seems unaware of.

Near the end, Rothstein argues:

Seen in this light the very notion of cultural property is narrow and flawed. It is hardly, as Unesco asserted, “one of the basic elements of civilization.” It illuminates neither the particular culture involved nor its relationship to a current political entity. It may be useful as a metaphor, but it has been more commonly used to consolidate cultural bureaucracies and state control.

But if cultural property really did exist, the Enlightenment museum would be an example of it: an institution that evolved, almost uniquely, out of Western civilization. And the cultural property movement could be seen as a persistent attempt to undermine it. And take illicit possession.

These Western “encyclopedic” museums are formed on the noblest of intentions. However they have been associated and party to illegal activity. Moreover, the rights these institutions often assert to these objects is based on the legal notion of property. If heritage become the exclusive paradigm, that would remove the argument justifying the current location of many of these objects in New York, Paris, London, Berlin, etc.

I suppose we have to forgive the author for an ignorance of the law, but “illicit” typically refers to illegal excavation or illegal export. Not the kind of repatriation he is describing. The key now is how these institutions can adapt and begin to work with nations of origin, not continue an acrimonious debate

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com