Wednesday 10 June 2009

Arrests Made In Utah over Sale of Native American Artefacts

A two-year major undercover sting operation aimed at gathering information on part of the flourishing illegal market in ancient American Indian artefacts in the United States has led to federal indictments in Utah naming 24 people (Howard Berkes, 'Arrests Made In Sale Of American Indian Artifacts' NPR News June 10, 2009; Nicholas Riccardi and Jim Tankersley, 24 charged in crackdown on Native American artifact looting, Los Angeles Times 11th June 2009). This was what authorities have called the largest investigation ever into the looting of Native American artifacts on public lands in the United States. On Wednesday, about 150 federal agents, sheriffs' deputies and local and tribal police served arrest and search warrants in Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. Most of those targeted by Wednesday's early morning raids live in southeastern Utah, most of them took place in Blanding, which is a centre of both legitimate and illegal artefact markets, while other arrests took place in Moab and Monticello (Utah), and in neighboring Colorado and New Mexico. The region has a rich archaeological heritage and contains thousands of archaeological sites, settlements, dwellings and burial grounds and cliff paintings and engravings of ancient groups who 'mysteriously vanished' before modern tribes appeared. Many of these sites are rich in collectable 'portable antiquities' including beautifuilly painted pottery.

It was in this region in the late 1800s that rancher Richard Wetherill and his family discovered the cliff dwellings (now Mese Verde National Park) burial sites containing clay pots, reed sandals and religious items of a 'lost culture' colloquially referred to as the Anasazi. That attracted the interest of collectors and museums. Since the early 20th century, settlers were even encouraged to dig up arrowheads, pottery and other remains. In the 1920s the University of Utah paid Blanding residents $2 per ancient pot. A lucrative trade in Native American artefacts developed that continues in both legal and black market forms today. It was the destruction to sites in this region by indiscriminate collecting that was behind the creation of the 1906 'Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities' (16 USC 431-433), see the very interesting website ' The Story of the Antiquities Act ', by Ronald F. Lee. Currently the Archaeological Resource Protection Act (ARPA) prohibits among other things the digging and selling of centuries-old pots, bowls, baskets, mugs, sandals, pipes, religious items and other artefacts left by ancient Native Americans on what is now federal and tribal land. Federal law does not however prohibit the digging and removal of artefacts from private land.

Collecting and trade in Native American artefacts of the Anasazi and related cultures in the region has been going on, legally and illegally, in this region for generations, the collectors forming a sort of artefact hunting subculture. Craig Childs, who is writing a book ("Finders Keepers") on artefact theft emphasises that as with all artefact hunting, not all US "pothunters," are motivated by profit: "The stronger focus is finding the thing … and figuring out the puzzle and getting your treasure, It is definitely a treasure hunter's sport". Protecting archaeological sites of the region from artefact theft is extremely difficult, enforcing the laws is hindered by the vast size of the region and the remoteness of many of the sites. Pothunters are rarely caught in the act, and they often claim that the items they sell were found on private land. Federal authorities estimate that 90% of the 20,000 archaeological sites in San Juan County, where Blanding is located, have already been plundered.

Archaeologists, Native American groups and preservationists have long argued that the government has not moved aggressively enough to stamp out the plundering of artifacts. There had last been an antiquities raid in Utah in the 1980s, and it is reported that the execution of the search warrants in collectors' homes caused much anti-government feeling and a 'cold dead hands' attitude among collectors in the region, especially as in the event nobody was actually prosecuted. One of President George W. Bush's final pardons was granted to the first Utah man convicted of stealing artifacts from public lands. This time authorities seem to have taken action and been concerned to make a watertight case.

Wednesday's sting involved the purchase of 256 artefacts by an undercover informant for $335,685. Interestingly, According to a search warrant affidavit, the FBI and Bureau of Land Management in October 2006 persuaded a person described as "a major dealer of archaeological artifacts for 10 years" to work with the authorities to help them unravel the informal network of pot hunters illicitly profiting off the land's history. The dealer was 'wired' and the transactions were recorded, and the informant managed to get information on where the artefacts in question had been found, some of the suspects indicated by pointing to spots on a map that they had been taken from federal and tribal land. The charges allege:

... theft of government property, theft from tribal lands and depredation of government property. Both felony and misdemeanor counts are involved. Penalties upon conviction range up to 10 years in prison.
The accused are named in several sources. In December 2007, for example, David Lacy, 55 (who another source suggests is the brother of San Juan County Sheriff Mike Lacy); and another defendant allegedly came to the dealer with a wide range of artifacts that they indicated had been found on public land, but asking that they be listed as coming from private land. The asking price was $6,000. Another person indicted was Harold Lyman, 78, who is accused of selling the source an ancient pipe bowl. Jeanne Redd, 59, was indicted for allegedly selling a tribal bird pendant. A woman with that name had been charged previously with desecrating Native American grave sites in southern Utah. No doubt in coming weeks we will be hearing more about the progress of this case.

At a Salt Lake City news conference about the arrests, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar described thse events as "a sad reminder that the stealing and destruction of archaeological and American Indian treasures from public lands is a highly lucrative business [...] We will not tolerate that kind of activity in the United States".

It is a shame though that the United States not only tolerates but does not more frequently take similar action against those of its citizens who ignore heritage protection laws of other countries to accumulate collections of portable antiquities such as pots coins and artworks looted from archaeological sites overseas and which are the basis of a massive no-questions-asked trade in the States which is just as damaging to the archaeological heritage as the pot-diggers they prosecute at home, and for precisely the same reasons.

(basic text largely based on the article Howard Berkes, 'Arrests Made In Sale Of American Indian Artifacts' NPR News June 10, 2009 - listen to a broadcast: map from the LA Times).


Marcus Preen said...

Blimey, ten years in prison for nighthawking on a protected site!

Meanwhile, on that basis, 1,500 years of imprisonment have been earned but not imposed over in Sussex - on a single farm!

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said "we will not tolerate that kind of activity in the United States".

We could do with someone like him him over here.

Paul Barford said...

That's Suffolk I suspect, but yes, there's a photo of Mr Salazar in the Los Angeles Times this morning.

Marcus Preen said...

Sussex, Suffolk, who cares! It all looks just as shiny labelled as Shropshire in a far away walnut cabinet with diamond leaded glass and cabriole legs.

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