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Stealing the Past

Recent artifact raids shed light on today’s looting syndicate and the damage it does to New Mexico’s history

August 19, 2009, 12:00 am

According to Peter Schoenburg, Fenn’s attorney, regarding the recent search, a federal informant had visited people’s homes and taken “a broad-based look at materials in people’s collections.” Fenn has not been charged, he says, “and of the thousands of objects in his collection, they took four items” during the June search. One object, a buffalo skull, was sold to an undercover agent, he says, while agents took “another buffalo skull, an old basket and an art object he made himself.”

“I fully expect we are going to be able to resolve this matter,” Schoenburg says. “He hasn’t done anything wrong and is not going to get charged with any of those crimes.” He adds it is “a mistake to lump him in with the other people in this case.”

Schoenburg says the laws protecting archaeological resources and, in particular, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, can present a “difficult and changing environment for any dealer and any collector.”

“Although I think the law has good intentions, it’s written extremely vaguely, and it’s often a very difficult moving target for a collector,” he says. “That said, I don’t think Forrest came close to the gray area of prohibited items. He is well on this side of the line and careful never to cross it.”

Complaints about the vagueness of the laws protecting resources are common among collectors.

“Many things going on, like this particular set of raids—whatever polite word you want to use for them—seems to be about new interpretations of old laws, especially [the Archaeological Resources Protection Act], and I don’t know what that’s all about,” Arch Thiessen, president of the Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association, says.

Thiessen, a nuclear physicist who retired recently from Los Alamos National Laboratory, runs the internet-based trading site Sunshine Studio. He doesn’t sell historic property, he says, nor do most of the association’s members.

He estimates that at least half the population of Santa Fe collects Native American art and says people should buy from dealers who “can give you, with the item, a guarantee that it was free and clear and not obtained some illegal way.” He recommends against buying historic pots or other older-looking objects from individual dealers at places such as flea markets.

“Frequently what happened is those pots were buried with the owner, and if they were taken up from a burial site, that makes it illegal—but there’s no way you can know if it was a burial site or not, after the fact. Or whether it was on public land or private land,” he says. “If someone gives you a map, you better go out with a GPS and make sure it’s really on private land.”

But it’s best just to avoid getting involved with historic objects, he says: “This is too flaky an area with too much danger.”

According to John Fryar, a former Bureau of Indian Affairs cultural resources crimes investigator and a member of the Pueblo of Acoma, people tend to view looting as a crime that’s not serious; they perceive it simply as a property crime, he says.
“But it’s stealing history, damaging and taking things that can never be replaced,” he says. “And a lot of times, [looters] are desecrating burials, they’re desecrating sacred items and sacred places.”

He points to the outrage people expressed after 300 grave sites at a cemetery in Illinois were recently disturbed. “Look at the public outcry over that,” he says. “I don’t see that happening with Native American sites, though it’s the same thing: They’re desecrating burials.”

Those activities affect the Native Americans, he says, especially if a particular tribe or individuals have ties to that particular site.

“It has a very big impact on their emotional well-being, their spiritual well-being,” he says. “It affects the whole community in a way that’s kind of hard to describe unless you’re feeling the pain that these people are feeling.”

Although Fryar retired from the BIA three years ago, he continues teaching classes about the Archaeological Resources Protection Act to law enforcement officials, archaeologists and prosecutors. He urges caution when investigating or confronting looters.

“When I was doing a lot of work in this area, this area of cultural resources crimes, I saw constantly that a lot of these looters had criminal backgrounds,” he says. “There was a lot of drug activity involved—and that was getting worse, especially methamphetamines—and a lot had domestic violence-type crimes in their backgrounds.”

Looting isn’t a harmless activity, and often the people participating in the activity—no matter what their walks of life—are involved in other illegal activities, as well.

“This is not just a mom-and-pop thing like it used to be in the early 1900s, when people would go take picnics and look for arrowheads and pots,” he says. “These are people who sometimes make a living doing this. They have a lot to lose, and they don’t want to get caught.”

In the Four Corners case, the affidavits, indictment and arrest records reveal people from a variety of backgrounds, including those with violent police records and ties to the drug trade. One prominent member of the Blanding community—a doctor who committed suicide shortly after his arrest—and his wife were allegedly involved not only with looting and the sale of illegally obtained objects, but also a Ponzi scheme. (A second man, Steven Shrader, who had lived in Santa Fe, though not at the time of his arrest, also subsequently committed suicide.)
Agents with the BLM and FBI have deferred questions related to the Four Corners case to the US Attorney’s Office in Utah. A scheduling conference was set for this week.

“We believe Utah got the first prison sentence in an ARPA case years ago, and we have always been very aggressive in investigating and prosecuting these kinds of cases,” Melodie Rydalch, public information officer for the US Attorney’s Office, says.

Unable to discuss the genesis of the case—beyond pointing out that looting has long been a problem in the Four Corners—Rydalch says the investigation could ultimately lead to additional charges.

Beyond that, she says, “the indictments speak for themselves, and we are prepared to proceed to trial.”

The recent Four Corners investigation isn’t just about those arrested; it also serves as a warning to other looters and collectors who break the laws protecting archaeological resources. And looting isn’t just something for archaeologists or Native Americans to worry about, the Historic Preservation Division’s Norman Nelson says. The knowledge gained from archaeological sites is important to everyone.

In New Mexico in particular, the disturbance of burials is a humanitarian issue, Nelson says: Many New Mexicans—whether Native American, Spanish or descended from those whose families arrived here as homesteaders—can look to those sites and feel a familial connection.
“Archaeology becomes much more real, tangible, if you realize [those descendents] are your next-door neighbors, and it’s important to them,” he says. “And maybe you don’t have the same worldview, but everyone can connect with the fact that that’s someone’s ancestor, and you shouldn’t be digging those people up.”

Whether it is within a formal cemetery or not, a human burial deserves reverence.

“The very act of burying someone involves community. There’s got to be someone there to bury you,” Nelson says. “Whether it’s 10,000 years old, 5,000 years old or 50 years old, it’s a human burial and it deserves respect—and many, many, many of those archaeological sites have human burials in them.”

Look at sites, he says. Draw them. But leave them undisturbed.   SFR

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