FBI too harsh in artifacts probe, sting?

Navajo archaeologists say 'it's about time'

By Chee Brossy
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, July 9, 2009

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Harmless hobby or devastating crime?

 There seems to be a difference in opinion over the June 10 sting that netted 24 people charged with stealing and dealing in Native American artifacts in Blanding, Utah.

The arrests resulted from a two-year undercover operation by the FBI and the Bureau of Land Management investigating a network of individuals allegedly involved in the exchange of artifacts taken from federal or tribal lands.

Two of those indicted have since committed suicide - James Redd, a Blanding physician, and Steven Shrader of Santa Fe.

This week two others, Redd's wife Jeanne and daughter Jerrica, pled guilty to seven counts of trafficking in stolen artifacts, theft of government property, and theft of tribal property.

The case involves 256 artifacts totaling almost $336,000. The confiscated pieces included pottery, sandals, stone knives, and jewelry.

But local residents deplored the arrests for what some refer to as a "hobby" or "pastime," terms that Navajo archaeologists say are euphemisms for a destructive and disrespectful practice.

Some Blanding townspeople allege FBI agents were overly aggressive in their arrests, barging into homes clad in flak jackets and handcuffing the accused.

Such actions, the critics say, contributed to the emotional turmoil leading up to the suicides of Redd and Shrader.

And all this over a few old pots and similar "treasures" that anyone hiking in the area is likely to stumble across?

Blanding Mayor Toni Turk recalled a similar raid 23 years ago.

"If they're going to come around once every 23 years and make this kind of show, it's not going to solve this problem," Turk said. "Before Al Qaeda hit the trade centers, (President) Clinton lobbed a couple missiles into Afghanistan and that was it. It's the same here. If they want to solve this problem we need something more than that."

Turk said there are more pressing issues affecting Blanding that could use federal help, such as trafficking in drugs and illegal aliens.

"It seems to me the federal government is picking and choosing the things that need to be addressed, and doing it in a very spotty way," he said.

Illegal since 1906

But a law is a law, and the one making it illegal to take artifacts from federal land since 1906 has been broken wantonly for far too long, say Navajo archeologists.

The Blanding bust - the largest Native American artifact sting operation to date - is just what was needed, in their view.

"(The arrests) are entirely appropriate," said Kerry Thompson, an archeology instructor at Northern Arizona University.

Thompson, who is Navajo and originally from Ganado, Ariz., holds a Ph.D. in archeology from the University of Arizona.

"These kinds of crimes go unpunished so much in the Southwest," she said. "People tend to think they have free rein over archeological sites on federal and tribal land. This looting and pot hunting is disrespectful and completely racist."

Neomi Tsosie, an archeologist with the Navajo Nation Archeology Department, agreed.

"It means a lot to the Native American and Navajo archeologists when people get caught doing these activities," she said. "For us it's not just stealing artifacts for a scientific purpose, but robbing our people of our heritage and doing it in a most disrespectful way possible."

Thompson recalled working at an archeological site on the reservation when she ran into people wearing hats that read, "I dug San Juan County," referring to the casual practice of pot hunting.

They walked past the legal dig with no apparent sense of irony or embarrassment, she recalled, saying, "They weren't apologetic."

Thompson has also seen serious pothunters, backhoes in tow, searching for sites to dig.

"This opinion that they have an inherent right (to take artifacts illegally) and they're not harming anyone is ludicrous," she said. "Obviously they don't think of the descendants of those they're disturbing."

According to the search warrants, some of the artifacts were taken from Navajo land at sites such as Poncho House Ruin near Bluff, Utah.

Tsosie bristled at the assertion that looting archeological sites and digging illegally is harmless.

"To me that whitewashes the reality that it's wrong," Tsosie said. "If they say it's embedded local family pastime, I feel that sends the message that it's OK to go out and loot.

"Just because they've been doing it for decades doesn't necessarily make it right."

A market thing

What about the financial incentive? Are looters making money selling ill-gotten artifacts?

According to the search warrants, the source bought the higher-priced items, such as stone axes, for $2,500 apiece.

Some defendants sold the source more than one item, and at one point the source purchased a collection of artifacts from one man for $15,000.

According to Martin Link, a former archeologist for the tribe and former director the Navajo tribal museum, buyers are willing to pay top dollar for artifacts like those collected in the Blanding sting.

Link said collectors in California form a domestic market, and Europe is known to have a large appetite for Native artifacts as well.

"There's a tremendous market in Germany and France and they're willing to pay top bucks," Link said.

Having seen a TV news segment showing one of the pots taken in the Blanding case, Link said $10,000 "would not be unreasonable" for a collector to pay for the piece, a Mesa Verde bowl.

"So it's worth their while to try it," he added, "especially in times like this where there's an economic slump, and to acquire a pot it's not going to cost you anything but some time and digging.

"If you clean it up a little bit you can get $5,000 to $10,000 for it. It's a market thing. If buyers are willing to pay that, there's going to be somebody willing to go and risk and dig for it."

And as for the profile of a buyer, Link says there really isn't one. The only criteria is having money.

"You can't just say doctors or lawyers," he said. "There are collectors out there in all sorts of professions that like to decorate their house. Sandals would end up in a glass case or on a mantel or something. Sometimes museums get in on the act."

With such a vast territory to police, it is difficult for tribal or federal authorities to catch pothunters, so much of the illegal digging goes unpunished.

Tsosie said the laws under which the defendants were charged are seen as impotent by the archeological community. The indictments cite violations of the Archeological Resources Protection Act and the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act.

"In the past the laws haven't been used to the greatest extent to punish people," she said. "I hope this is the opportunity for them to do that."

Emily Palus, NAGPRA coordinator for the BLM, said government plans to prosecute violations to the full extent of the law.

"These sites are significant for Native people, and are the heritage of all Americans, and scientists have an interest as well," Palus said. "There's a tremendous loss to a variety of people and groups when there is this widespread collecting that goes far beyond hobby collecting."

Navajos in Blanding

And how is the crackdown affecting Navajos in the town of Blanding itself? The town has a significant Native American population, mostly Navajo, and the school district is has about 50 percent Native American population, said Turk.

Angelo Baca, Aneth Chapter member, said racial tensions are high since the arrests.

Some non-Native community members blame Native Americans for the crackdown, he said.

"(Tensions) have always been pretty high, but they're worse now," Baca said.

What makes it worse is that Native American perspective is not being presented in the media so it seems they don't have an opinion, said Baca.

The county sheriff's brother, David Lacy, is one of those indicted and that makes the issue all the more volatile in a small town like Blanding, he added.

"It's a small town, everybody knows everybody," Baca said.

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