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

24 Indicted for Looting in the 4 Corners

A staggering 24 indictments are being announced as we speak for looting Native American sites in the Southwest. From the Salt Lake Tribune:

An ongoing federal investigation of archaeological-site looting in the West has moved into Utah, where federal authorities are expected to visit later today to announce a slew of criminal charges.


Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Bureau of Indian Affairs boss Larry EchoHawk, U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman and officials from the FBI and Justice Department plan an afternoon news conference in Salt Lake City to detail the charges netted after a two-year undercover probe in southeastern Utah.


The charges stem from the theft of cultural and historical artifacts from American Indian lands and federal tracts in the Four Corners area, according to the Interior Department.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Looting of Native American Sites in South Dakota

Josh Verges of the ArgusLeader had a good detailed story about the indictment of three men in South Dakota for trafficking in Native American artifacts:

The federal indictments of three men accused of trafficking in Native American artifacts reveal a lucrative trade centered on the illegal harvesting of a culture’s buried history.

U.S. Attorney Marty Jackley said the indictments – the first of their kind in his two and a half years on the job – are partly a response to his conversations with tribal members.”When I travel to Cheyenne River and Standing Rock … this is very important to their culture and their tradition,” he said.

Jackley said the investigation continues with the possibility of more indictments, and those already filed involve a “significant number of artifacts.”

Brian Ekrem, 28, of Selby and Richard Geffre, 49, of Pierre allegedly sold three copper arm bands in violation of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act and were involved in the collection of many other artifacts, including beads, arrowheads and bone tools.  Scott Matteson, 60, of Fort Pierre is accused of buying red stone discs, arrowheads and a sandstone scraping tool, all of which had been removed from public and Indian lands.

Each man pleaded not guilty earlier this month in Pierre and was released without bond until his next court appearance. In each case, court records do not specify how the items were obtained or to which tribe they probably belonged.  Matteson said last week that he bought the items from an artifacts dealer and he did not know their origins. He said that transaction of less than $300 has resulted in what he hopes is only a temporary loss of his artifact museum.

He said federal agents recently confiscated his 38-foot trailer filled with Native American arrowheads, pots and other relics, which he has collected during the past 50 years.

Verges and the two other men were most likely looting sites and burial grounds.  Policing these violations is difficult given the vast geographical area federal agents and prosecutors are tasked with safeguarding.  That’s why its particularly disturbing that President Bush has decided to pardon David Lane Woolsey (via) of St. George Utah, who violated the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. 

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

Two Indicted for Looted Native American Artifacts

A local TV station in Sacramento has a brief account of two men who have been indicted for looting Native American sites in Nevada, Donald and Steven Parker. If they are ultimately convicted they will face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The story indicates this was part of a five-year investigation, leading me to the conclusion that this may have been related to the massive searches of California museums earlier this year.

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

Does Energy Trump Heritage in the Four Corners

Kirk Johnson of the New York Times has an excellent article about a disheartening subject: the threat energy projects pose to Native American heritage in the West. Its a familiar story: not enough funding for surveys and archaeological research, pressures from development and expanding populations, plus the problem of illegal looting.

Above is a picture from the piece, of Chimney Rock Archaeological Area. Federal land managers are forced to make difficult judgment calls, considering using portions of funds for energy development to help safeguard and protect sites.

As the piece notes, “A spokesman for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, which represents drilling companies, described helping defend historical sites as good for business, especially if financing volunteers created more contact and understanding between local residents and energy explorers.”

That seems like a big lump to swallow and a dangerous compromise of heritage values. I’m highly skeptical of this kind of give and take, though perhaps some with more understanding of specific cases might offer some kind of hope for this kind of compromise. Consider that “[t]he Forest Service, for example, using research at Chimney Rock that suggests the place was chosen by the Anasazi at least partly for its vantage point of the San Juan Mountains and river valley below, recently decided that a big natural gas drilling project just a mile or so away must not be visible from the rock.” Wow, one would have thought that would have been a no-brainer.

Also at risk is the 2,000 year-old rock art in Nine Mile Canyon (previously discussed here); in Montana, a coal-fired power plant has been proposed near “one of the last wild sections of the Lewis and Clark trail”; and in New Mexico a uranium mine has been proposed on a national forest site sacred to Native American tribes.

It’s a disheartening story, which indicates I think how much more effort and advocacy is needed. Strict criminal penalties are in place for looting of sites, and there are even nimble civil fines which can quickly punish looters. But heritage policy does not start and stop with looting, it also requires funding, and good policy solutions. Sadly many of those appear to be lacking in the American West, despite some notable heroic eforts

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

A different Kind of Restitution


There is an interesting article from Eureka California by Donna Tam in the Times-Standard on Saturday, Wiyot tribe: Return burial artifacts. The Wiyot tribe is requesting that collectors return items removed from burial sites before it was illegal to do so.

It seems at a recent local Indian Art Show, many Wiyot artifacts were offered for sale, and they may have been from the collection of H. H. Stuart, a Eureka dentist who did amateur excavation of Wiyot sites in the 1920’s. Those kind of private excavations were not prohibited by law at the time, and privately owned objects are not subject to the relevant State or Federal law, particularly NAGPRA.

These calls for restitution are not dictated by law, so long as these objects were in fact unearthed in the 1920’s, and that collection label is not used to mask recently unearthed objects, as often takes place.

Thsi presents an interesting case, because it’s a voluntary return of objects which are important to the Wiyot tribe, and it is not done under any legal pressures. Surprisingly perhaps, 1,000 objects have been returned. AS Helene Rouvier, the Wiyot Tribal historic Preservation Officer says in the piece “I would ask people to try and put themselves in the place of the Indians … How would they feel if this were their relatives?”

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

Ancient Art at Risk in Utah

Nord Wennerstrom, of the National Trust for Historic Preservation has drawn my attention to a proposed oil and gas development in Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon which could affect the 10,000 petroglyphs and pictographs there:

May 1, 2008 is the deadline for contacting the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) about a proposal that could dramatically step up damage to the rock art in Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon, affectionately known as the “world’s longest art gallery” and home to more than 10,000 petroglyphs and pictographs made primarily from the Fremont and Ute Indian cultures. A massive proposed oil and gas development project (more than 800 wells!) would increase truck traffic inside the Canyon by 416% causing enormous amounts of dust, chemical dust suppressants and vehicle exhaust to accumulate on and permanently harm this international treasure.

A recently released study shows a direct link between truck traffic in the Canyon and the deterioration of the rock art panels, due to a build up of dust and harmful chemicals used to control dust on the road. The BLM, which manages much of the land in and around Nine Mile Canyon, needs to recognize the findings of this study and present plans for a new access road to the exploration site, rather than continuing to rely on the narrow dirt roads that run through Nine Mile Canyon.

We urge you to send an email to the Bureau of Land Management today at UT_Pr_Comments@blm.gov and copy the National Trust for Historic Preservation at crc@nthp.org.

Let BLM know that it is imperative for them to protect the thousands of prehistoric petroglyphs and pictographs in Nine Mile Canyon. Tell BLM that it is unacceptable to allow these international treasures to be damaged by the dust and chemicals and exhaust generated by current and proposed truck traffic in Nine Mile Canyon. Ask BLM to perform a detailed evaluation of alternative routes that trucks could use to access the project area instead of the existing dirt roads in Nine Mile Canyon and its narrow side canyons. Encourage BLM to fulfill its role as the steward of the world’s longest art gallery and save our shared heritage for future generations.

If you think as I do that the BLM should seriously consider these alternative proposals, I encourage you to join me in writing a letter.

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

More on the California Searches


“I have rarely seen Federal agents come out in such force as they did today”.

That’s what LA Times staff writer Jason Felch remarked yesterday on KCRW. He also has a very nice overview of the investigation so far, with links to the search warrants in today’s edition of the LA Times.

The massive search yesterday of the LA County Museum of Art, along with Pasadena’s Pacific Asia Museum, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana and the Mingei Museum in San Diego has yet to result in any arrests or indictments. However it seems to be just a matter of time. It goes without saying that when Federal agencies and prosecutors get involved, they seldom lose.

Much of the allegations were established by the undercover work of a National Parks Service employee. Based on the search warrants, it seems the investigation started in response to looting of Native American sites, and quickly expanded.

Robert Olson, who spends a lot of time in southeast Asia is known in the affidavits as “the smuggler”. The other main target appears to be Jonathan Markell, of the Silk Roads Gallery.

This is a powerful image which appeared in the LA Times today, with agents from the IRS, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the National Park Service searching prominent California art institutions. Even if this search does not amount to a criminal prosecution, it sends a powerful message to the antiquities trade, including museums that purchase these objects, that federal agents are watching, and the trade needs to quickly and efficiently change the way it does business.

I think we can take a few things away from this investigation. First, the alleged objects were of limited value. These aren’t comparable to the Euphronios Krater for example. They are smaller objects, but were bought and sold in greater quantities. Objects were allegedly illegally excavated from Thailand (most from the Ban Chiang site), China, Myanmar and Native American sites in the US.

Second, I think this is compelling evidence of a systemic problem with the antiquities trade. Many have discussed these problems before. The lack of provenance, and the ease with which smugglers can elude customs agents makes policing the trade difficult. However, it would seem now that those who would buy and sell objects can no longer afford to cut corners, and must now conduct far more detailed investigations into how objects came to market.

Finally, I think this investigation reminds us that Roman and Greek objects are not the only classes of antiquities that are smuggled, despite the attention the recent returns from US institutions have indicated. Clearly, the question now is how many indictments or convictions will ensue, and how will the individual art institutions and the relevant industry codes of practice evolve to prevent this kind of criminal activity in the future.

Other Links:

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

Protecting Native American Objects and Sites

Indian Country Today has a couple of very interesting articles by American Cultural heritage lawyers. The first, an article by Gabriel Galanda and Debora Juarez covers threats to sacred places “off-reservation”. Here’s an excerpt:

Sacred lands are indeed under attack. Developers are willing to pillage such lands whenever profitable. By way of example, as the Times piece explained, an energy development company threatens to build a $4 billion oil refinery atop lands believed to be the final resting place for Quechan ancestors. And, if state governments are not likewise seeking to excavate Indian burial grounds or sacred lands for highways, sewer systems or other public works projects, state decision-makers are attempting to make it easier for private developers to do so.

In March, the Idaho Legislature unanimously passed a law that will allow state officials to automatically unearth tribal ancestors from their finally resting places when discovered on private lands. An Idaho state spokesman cited digging up ancestral remains as a great solution because it would be done ”at no cost to the landowner and with no delay to the project.” Currently, the Washington state Legislature is studying ”the legal processes to permit the removal of human remains from property” so development can also proceed on ceded lands in Washington without cost or delay.

Tribal governments and citizens must stand prepared for battle in this new kind of Indian war. This is the first of a two-part series designed to equip tribes with the legal weaponry that they need to defend their sacred places.

In the second article, Sharon Haensly talks about prospective steps that Indian tribes can take to protect sites from development and destruction. Some steps which tribes should take include:

  • Declare, in tribal law, the tribe’s property and other legal rights in off-reservation sacred sites and in the access routes to them.
  • Avoid the legally ambiguous term ”cultural resources,” and use the term ”cultural property” whenever possible.
  • Create a tribal register of sacred sites, designate specific sites on tribal registers, and decide when and how to share this information with other governments and developers.
  • Organize and maintain an ever-growing database of written information that supports the tribe’s cultural connection to sacred sites.
  • Describe in tribal law the preferred methods for conducting off-reservation inventories and handling accidental discoveries of cultural property.
  • Ensure that tribal constitutions extend tribal jurisdiction, including tribal court jurisdiction, over off-reservation cultural properties.

Those all appear to be excellent strategies especially as the tension between development and preservation will always exist, especially in the American West. In the United States protection of Native American sites and artifacts often depends upon where an object is located, whether its private land, State-owned land, or Federal land. Protection seems to work reasonably well overall, but it’s a confusing patchwork approach, and subject to some really unfortunate abrogations as may take place in Idaho. In such a legal environment, tribes need to be proactive and prepare for disputes before they occur.

This is a topic which is receiving more scholarly attention of late. An excellent article in the most recent issue of the Journal of Art, Antiquity and Law by Carolyn Shelbourn compares the protection of archaeological resources in the United States and England, Protecting Archaeological Resources in the United States: Some Lessons for Law and Practice in England, 12 Art, Ant. & L. 258 (2007).

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