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In this aerial photo taken from WTHR Chopper 13, FBI agents work around the home of 91-year-old Donald Miller in Waldron, Ind. on Wednesday, April 2, 2014. Authorities seized thousands of Native American, Russian, Chinese and other artifacts that have "immeasurable" cultural value from Miller's private collection, the FBI said Wednesday. The items, which also came from Haiti, Australia, New Guinea and Peru, were collected by Miller over eight decades, FBI Special Agent Robert Jones said at a news conference.

People of the Dirt: FBI Bust of Remains Collector Hints at Sensitivity to Native Issues

Mary Annette Pember

Part One

The recent discovery by the FBI of a giant horde of Native artifacts and remains held by Don Miller in Rush County, Indiana offers an opportunity to take a deeper look into the eccentric, obsessive and sometimes shadowy world of such collecting.

Miller, 91, has been well known by as a collector of Indian and other artifacts for years. His collection includes the remains of over 100 Native ancestors, according to tribal leaders consulted by the FBI in the case. Many of the remains are labeled with names that can be traced to Native families alive today. “He had a head with an arrowhead stuck in it, like a skull and all kinds of Indian artifacts from arrowheads to hatchets to peace pipes to just anything,” neighbor Joe Runnebohm told the Indianapolis Star.

RELATED: FBI Seizes Thousands of Artifacts from Indiana Home

According to Drew Northern, FBI Supervisory Special Agent, the agency is reaching out to Tribal Historic Preservation Officers for assistance in repatriating items and remains found at Miller’s home.  Within days of the find, the FBI coordinated a conference call and face-to-face meeting with THPO leaders at the Indianapolis office. “Building lasting relationships with tribes and repatriation is our goal,” Northern said.

Although early news reports described the FBI removal of the artifacts and remains from Miller’s home as a raid, later reports indicated that Miller is cooperating with authorities and had invited them into his home to take the items.

The exterior of Don Miller's home in Rush County, Indiana, where artifacts were found. (Pember)Although Agent Northern would not discuss how Miller came to the attention of the FBI, it seems likely that the collector may have been trying to sell or donate his artifacts. According to the Greensburg Daily News, Miller recently offered his collection to the Rush County Historical Society.  Since the organization has limited space, leaders declined his offer.

Many of today’s natural history museums collections are based on donations from wealthy antiquarians wishing to leave personal legacies, says Christopher Moore, professor of Anthropology at the University of Indianpolis. “As colonial empires expanded in the 18th and 19th century, wealthy travelers would bring strange things back with them, often amassing huge collections that they displayed in their homes.”

This colonial practice continues today. Miller amassed his collection during 52 years of world travel as a missionary. He made no secret of his collection and frequently invited school groups and neighbors in to see his private museum, that included not only Native artifacts and remains but also cultural items from all over the world. A 1992 piece in the Indianapolis Star told the story of Miller and his personal museum.

Although some of the items in his collection may have been acquired illegally, no charges have been brought against Miller. Many of the artifacts were found by Miller during his travels, but he has so many items that it seems reasonable to assume he also bought or traded.

According to a Native artifacts dealer who asked to remain anonymous, Miller was a regular at artifact shows in the region.


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