Liz Martin/Cedar Rapids Gazette
Sandra Massey of the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma (left) and Patt Murphy of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska answer questions during a press conference following the sentencing of Thomas Munson at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Friday, July 8, 2016.

Home Detention for Park Service Grave Robber

Frank Hopper

When NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, was about to go into effect in 1990, the superintendent of the Effigy Mounds National Monument in eastern Iowa at the time, Thomas Munson, stole the bones of over 40 Native Americans. The monument also has a museum in its visitor’s center that displays Native artifacts found in the same burial mounds as the bones.

According to NAGPRA, if the artifacts could be linked to the bones, they would also be subject to repatriation. In other words, releasing the bones to the tribes for reburial meant also releasing the artifacts. But if the bones went away, the artifacts would remain museum property.

At least that’s how Munson understood it. So he took the bones of more than 40 ancient Natives who lived between 700 and 2,500 years ago, wrapped them in trash bags, stuck them in cardboard boxes, and shoved them in his home garage where they stayed for over 20 years. And what did he get for this heinous act of cultural larceny?

One year of home detention.

That’s what U.S. Magistrate Judge Jon Scoles sentenced Munson to on Friday, July 8, according to the Cedar Rapids Gazette. In addition to a year of home detention, Munson must spend 10 weekends in jail and pay $108,905 restitution for the damage he caused to the bones and a $3,000 fine.

As reported in ICTMN in January, Munson plead guilty to a misdemeanor, theft of federal government property, after a five-year investigation beginning in 2011.

“2011 was when I asked for the inventory,” recalls Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska member Patt Murphy in a recent interview with ICTMN.

Murphy, now retired, was the tribe’s representative at the time for receiving Native remains and funerary objects for repatriation and reburial. He was familiar with NAGPRA and knew monument officials should have filed an inventory in the Federal Register showing all the items in their possession that may need to be returned to the tribes.

When he requested to see this inventory, the case blew wide open. Murphy explained to ICTMN why he wanted the inventory.

“We did three reburials up there and after the first two everything was supposed to have been done. And then a couple of years later, somewhere along in there, they came up with another group of remains that had previously been lost in their collection. That sounded kind of screwy to me. I asked them about it at the time, if there were any problems. They said, ‘No, that should be it. It was just overlooked in the inventory.’ But the longer I thought about it, the more I thought there must be something wrong. So that’s when I asked for the inventory.”

Marching Bear Mounds at Effigy Mounds National Monument. (Courtesy Kristen Maxfield/National Park Service)

Monument officials never did find it, but in the process of looking they uncovered ex-superintendent Munson’s theft of the bones over 20 years before. Munson knew NAGPRA meant the monument’s museum would lose the artifacts in its collection because they were grave goods and needed to be returned with the human remains they were buried with.

“So he removed the remains in order to keep the funerary items as artifacts in the museum there at Effigy,” Murphy explained.

Why Munson kept the bones in his garage instead of disposing of them is unclear.

“Why wouldn’t he have taken and buried them or dumped them or thrown them in the trash or something when he took them to start with? There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it,” Murphy said.

What is clear, however, is how the succeeding superintendents and administrators of the monument covered-up the loss of the bones even after the museum curator, Sharon Greener, alerted them of the theft. In particular, Murphy recalls how interim superintendent Mike Evans discouraged investigation of the matter.

Visitor's Center, Effigy Mounds National Monument. (Courtesy National Park Service)

“This Mike Evans, when people would ask him for help [regarding the missing bones], he told them that that wasn’t their department. To forget it.”

But by 2011, when Murphy asked to see the NAGPRA inventory, the new superintendent, Jim Nepstad, was not only helpful, but determined to discover the truth. He engaged the assistance of National Park Service Ranger Bob Palmer to question Munson, who had retired as superintendent in 1994, at his home in the nearby town of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. A search of Munson’s home later revealed a box of human bones, damaged from years of being stored in trash bags, in his garage.

Murphy has mixed feelings about the conviction. On the one hand, he feels Munson, now age 76 and suffering from cognitive difficulties, got off too lightly. The court allowed him to declare the value of the bones at only $1,000, an insultingly low amount for the remains of Murphy’s ancestors. Had the value been over that, the crime would have been a felony and the sentence much harsher.

On the other hand, he feels his ancestors helped bring everything to light.

Native ceramics found at Effigy Mounds National Monument. (Courtesy National Park Service)

“The old ones put this case together. They gifted us with the perfect staff at Effigy: the superintendent, the ranger law enforcement officer, a dedicated special investigator, a U.S. Attorney’s office that did its best to understand Indians and work with us and a judge who listened.”

When asked how he knew his ancestors were helping, Murphy explained, “If you work around these remains and funerary objects, you get some feelings. Had to be the old ones telling me to get busy and start looking.”

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whitehorse's picture
Submitted by whitehorse on
This once again proves that the court system does NOT care to punish those who break Federal law against American Indians. Here is another example, if properly charged this man would have owed hundreds of Millions in Fines and Died in jail, but he only got a slap on the wrist. Nonrecognized man sentenced over eagle feathers A Florida man who is a member of non-recognized tribe was sentenced to five years of probation and fined $5,000 for illegally possessing and trading eagle feathers. Ed Winddancer, 51, says he is a member of the Nanticoke Tribe. He was arrested in Tennessee in 2005 for trading bald and golden eagle feathers with an undercover agent from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Winddancer sought to dismiss the charges, saying his rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act were violated by federal laws that protect eagles. A member of a non-recognized tribe from New Mexico won a case on similar grounds. But a federal judge in Tennessee ruled in June 2006 that Winddancer failed to apply for a permit so he couldn't challenge the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The judge also said the government, under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, has a compelling interest to preserve eagles and the rights of federally recognized tribes. BTW if you read the actual court documents he tried to trade the Eagle Feathers for over $350 on 2 different occasions.

Jeff Jones
Jeff Jones
Submitted by Jeff Jones on
If there was a First Nations justice system (where crimes involving First Nations are dealt with) then the mercy that was given to this criminal would be proper mercy. As it is - it is merely another shameful act in the long history of shameful acts

bubb's picture
Submitted by bubb on
Maybe the Effigy Mounds National Monument should just be turned over to the tribes affiliated with it or maybe put a member of one of the tribes in as superintendent.