5 indicted for American Indian artifact looting
EAGLE BUTTE, S.D. – The pottery, stone knives, arm bands and other American Indian items sitting in a vendor’s booth or posted online look innocent enough, but the centuries-old artifacts taken from South Dakota’s rugged Missouri River banks don’t belong to the sellers.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has indicted five men, accusing them of looting or trading the ancient items.
The river’s banks are “supplying the rest of the country the artifacts they want for their collections,” said Richard Harnois, senior field archaeologist with the Army Corps of Engineers in Pierre. “There isn’t anywhere else in the country that is like this. You have a huge drainage system populated by people for 12,000 years and banks that are eroding.”
Federal laws prohibit the removal of human remains, funerary items and other sacred items from public and Indian land, and bans anyone from knowingly buying those items. It is legal for landowners to take items from their own property.
“It sure seems to be the Missouri River trenches is the honey pot,” Harnois said. “It’s just one huge artifact mine for some of these folks.”
Those indicted are: Brian Ekrem, 28, of Selby; Richard Geffre, 49, of Pierre; Elliot Hook, 52, of Wessington Springs; Scott Matteson, 60, of Fort Pierre; and John Sheild, 77, of Madison, Wis.
Their lawyers either had no comment or could not be reached for comment.
They each pleaded not guilty in federal court in Pierre to charges that include excavating and trafficking in archaeological resources and trafficking in Native American cultural resources.
Among the items: copper arm bands and bracelets, beads, stone knives, bone tools, pipes, pottery, bone fish hooks, antler arrow points, hammers, cannonballs and British and French gun flints.
The illegal taking and trading of artifacts from public and Indian land has been fairly constant among collectors, but online auction sites give people with an interest in ancient items the chance to profit from it, Harnois said.
“It really opened up the market and enabled these folks to sell stuff,” he said.
“It’s the money they want,” said Halley Maynard, a tribal cultural preservation monitoring enforcement officer for the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. “These sites are going back thousands and thousands of years.”
Richard Lofton, a cultural preservation technician with the tribe, said that besides the loss of artifacts, the looters also speed river bank erosion by digging holes that fill with water.
The artifacts belong to everyone and are invaluable for learning about past cultures, he said.
“These are lost for future generations,” Lofton said. “It’s just history. This may not be our (tribal) band. But it’s still Native American culture.”
U.S. Attorney Marty Jackley said the government must try to preserve historic pieces and not just catch those responsible for illegal trade.
“The artifact cases currently under indictment and investigation involve a significant number of items. An important aspect of the ongoing investigation is to preserve and respectfully return these objects to their rightful places,” he said.
Federal, state and tribal agencies and governments are trying to educate people about laws that prevent the taking of items from public and Indian land, which can be reported by calling (866) NO-SWIPE.
“We’re going to continue to pursue to every extent that we can until some of these folks get the idea to find another hobby or do something different,” Harnois said. “Until they decide to stop breaking the law, we’re going to keep after them.”
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