Josh Verges writes of the federal indictments earlier this month of three men accused of trafficking in Native American artifacts in South Dakota which “reveal a lucrative trade centered on the illegal harvesting of a culture's buried history” in the heart of the USA. 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.In the context of the discussion of the current no-questions-asked portable antiquities market it is notable that Matteson (who like the other two pleads not guilty) “said last week that he bought the items from an artifacts dealer and he did not know their origins”.
In the US, Federal laws prohibit the removal of human remains, funerary items and other sacred items from Indian land and public land. It also prohibits anyone from knowingly buying those items. The law does not however stop landowners from digging or collecting those items on their own property; leading to a very patchy system of protecting the archaeological resource. Obviously if, mindful of this, collectors demanded and retained evidence of legitimate provenance of the artefacts in their personal “artefact museums” then Matteson would not have had any problems with the authorities. Nor would the authorities now have problems in sorting out the origin of the items in his “38-foot trailer filled with Native American arrowheads, pots and other relics, which he has collected during the past 50 years” which was recently confiscated by federal agents. (I guess its convenient it was on wheels and not in a garden shed as many UK “metal detectorists” use to “curate” their collections).
Mr Matteson said he “began collecting arrowheads as a child when he would get farmers' permission to search their cornfields and keep an eye out while fishing with his father. When the Archaeological Resource Protection Act of 1979 restricted the collection of artifacts from riverbeds - navigable waterways are public land - he turned to auctions and gun shows to build his collection” (gun shows?). Matteson said: "I scoured the country for those arrowheads. I put my life into this. I built this museum to go to schools to teach and show kids," Are there no proper museums in South Dakota that its inhabitants have to rely on a collector’s show-and-tell session from a rock-shop owner to learn about their region’s past? Presumably the region has had some rescue archaeology where is the material from that archived? Perhaps it is a lack of cultural outreach about the rich prehistory of the territory of North America which leads its citizens to hanker for bits and pieces looted from archaeological sitres across the seas?
Looting of native American sites by artefact hunters is a large problem in the area. University of South Dakota anthropologist Brian Molyneaux pointed out that "As tribes hold every place and every remnant of the past as part of a living legacy - central to their religions and histories - each act of looting is yet another in a very long line of aggressive attacks against them, when they only want to live at peace in their own land."
That seems something that US portable antiquity collectors should try to get their heads around in their rants about the “archaeologists” who are trying to conserve the archaeological resource in situ. The focus of discussion these days is not so much national identity (pace Cuno) but about power of place.
"Hold every place and every remnant of the past as part of a living legacy”
Photo: Sioux territory in the Dakotas.