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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.

Huge Black Market in Native Relics Slowed by FBI Seizures

Mary Annette Pember

“The illegal trade in artifacts is very lucrative and represents a large criminal worldwide activity. Law enforcement officials understand not only the economic but also the global cultural impact of these crimes,” said Drew Northern, FBI Supervisory Special Agent. Northern was responding to recent news in the Salt Lake Tribune of the great lengths to which federal authorities are going in order to preserve looted artifacts. He noted that there are organized criminal groups that specialize in the black market sale of cultural items whose main crime is sale and looting of cultural artifacts throughout the world.

The seizure of thousands of illegal Native American artifacts by the FBI in May from an antiquities collector in Rush County, Indiana and the 2009 prosecution by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Blanding, Utah of a network of antiquities traders are among the largest of such cases in the U.S.

RELATED: FBI Seizes Thousands of Artifacts from Indiana Home

The FBI, aided by its Art Crimes Team, removed thousands of Native American and other cultural artifacts from the home of antiquities collector Don Miller. The remains of over 100 Native ancestors were among items taken from Miller’s collection.

The FBI removed artifacts from Miller’s home that were obviously illegal, such as funerary items and human remains. According to Agent Northern, the questionable artifacts represent only a portion of Miller’s extensive antiquities collection. No charges have been brought against Miller, 91, who has been very cooperative with investigators and may have been unaware of the legal status of items within his collection.

In Utah, however, the BLM seized a wider range of items, including more utilitarian artifacts such as cradleboards, projectile points, hand tools, pendants, grinding stones and others. Since they were clearly looted from federal lands, however, even utilitarian items fall under the province of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, (NAGPRA) according to Agent Northern.

Large-scale investigations like these present unique challenges to law enforcement agencies such as proper storage, often for years, and repatriation to tribes under NAGPRA. Federal curators are now in charge of storing and caring for huge treasure troves of Native American artifacts seized during investigations.

The Salt Lake Tribune notes that one of the most extensive and valuable collections of Native artifacts comprised of over 6,000 items from the Blanding case is now stored in a warehouse in Salt Lake Valley. Care and storage of the items requires the expertise of trained museum curators and conservators who must ensure that organic materials in the collection are kept free of insects and maintained in a precise climate controlled environment, the Salt Lake Tribune reports. For instance, many items had to be put in freezers before they could be stored in BLM facilities in order to kill any insects.

Such procedures are standard museum practice according to Larry Zimmerman, professor of anthropology at Indiana and Purdue Universities. Zimmerman has served as a consultant to the FBI in cases including the investigation in Indiana.

The Indianapolis FBI is now also faced with the task of caring for and storing artifacts taken from Miller’s collection until they can be repatriated to tribes.

It is not uncommon for federal agencies to undertake such work, but the sheer size of the collections in Utah and Indiana is unusual noted Northern.

“Miller’s collection is larger than that of some museums,” Northern said.

Northern would not discuss the specifics of caring for the Rush County collection but said, “The FBI is taking special measures to ensure the items are protected from the environment and is keeping with advice from curators and conservators with expertise in this area.”

Northern added that the agency is “working with experts from Native nations including anthropologists, archaeologists, tribal historic preservation officers and keepers of the oral traditions in determining the original nature of the items.”

Appropriate storage of the items is the first goal for the FBI. “Respectful repatriation of the ancestors is also an important goal at this point, “ according to Northern.

Sending A Message

The overall goal of such large-scale investigations is not to jail looters but to rein in the illegal antiquities trade according to BLM officials who are quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune story.

“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,” Shelly Smith, BLM’s deputy Utah state director for natural resources told the Tribune.

Zimmerman agrees. “I think the FBI is sending a message to artifact looters and working to educate the public about such activities,” he noted.

“We’ve told our Native American partners and others around the world that when we get evidence that someone is engaged in looting or illegal traffic of artifacts we will investigate such cases,” Northern said.

Asked if the agency is sending a message Northern would only say, “As the public learns more about the FBI’s investigations of artifact crimes, I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear more tips from the public about other cases.”

What Is Your Patrimony Worth?

Zimmerman opines that such investigations, both immediately and long term must be very costly. There were well over 100 people involved for a week in the initial stages of the Miller case,” he noted.

Processing of such items takes time according to Zimmerman. Indeed the Salt Lake Tribune story notes that it could take years to determine the origin of such artifacts and work with tribes on repatriation. In the meantime, such collections must be properly stored and maintained.

Northern did not provide a budget for the Miller investigation. He noted that typically the FBI doesn’t provide “dollar for dollar information about its activities.”

He did agree, however, that the work is costly.

“Yes, but the cost is something we will bear. We take reasonable and prudent efforts to expend the necessary funds. It’s important that these items are properly and respectfully stored and cared for, “ he said.

In general, archaeology is a very expensive venture according to Zimmerman. “But what is the worth of a culture’s patrimony?” he asked.

For Zimmerman such worth can’t be expressed in dollars and cents.

“The unprecedented task we have is trying to make right out of it, how to restore what we can to Native Americans and how to stress the damage that has been done,” Smith told the Salt Lake Tribune.

Determining what items are actually sacred, however, is best left to tribes. “These are holy objects. Everything in the circle of life is alive for us,” Ramon Riley said in the Tribune.

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chahta ohoyo's picture
chahta ohoyo
Submitted by chahta ohoyo on
its always struck me as funny how 'collectors' who apparently seem to lack a culture of their constantly run around looting the cultures of those whose cultures wont be changed....I don't give a damn if the looting is for 'business', or spiritual emptiness, proof of superiority over 'mud' people or what...just kind of sad and bedraggled

nsakellis's picture
Submitted by nsakellis on
Its sad on many levels for many peoples. I myself am not a Native American, but read Indian Country Today because of the thoughtful coverage it provides on a broad range of Native issues. My own ancestry is Greek, and we have our own issues with so many of our culturally significant ancient artifacts being wrongly held in museum collections outside of Greece, with the worst offender being the British Museum above all. Its a worldwide problem for many cultures, with examples too numerous to name, but the moral wrong of it all is especially appalling with the types of items mentioned in Mary Annette Pember's article. Its a painfully slow process, but at least there are signs of change for the better in how the world views these and other types of cultural thefts.