U.S. Attorney's Office prosecutes stolen Native American artifacts case

Today, the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Utah announced that its law enforcement partners were arresting defendants and executing search warrants following a more than two-year undercover investigation of a network of individuals allegedly involved in the sale, purchase, and exchange
of artifacts illegally taken from public or Indian lands in the Four Corners region.

Twelve indictments charging 24 defendants with violations of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) were unsealed in Salt Lake City. Arrest warrants were issued for 23 of the 24 individuals charged as a part of the investigation. Twelve search warrants also are being executed. The case involves 256 artifacts totaling $335,685.

In addition to ARPA and NAGPRA violations, the indictments allege theft of government property, depredation of government property, and theft of Indian tribal property. The indictments charge defendants in Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado.

“These archaeological treasures are precious and protecting them preserves a rich history and heritage. That is why the Justice Department will use all of its tools to vigorously enforce the laws designed to safeguard the cultural heritage of Native Americans,” said Deputy Attorney General Ogden. “Recommitting resources and focus to criminal justice in Indian Country is of paramount importance to the Justice Department.”

“The problem American Indian and Alaska Native tribes face of looters robbing them of their cultural patrimony is a major law enforcement issue for federal agencies responsible for enforcing historic preservation laws in Indian Country,” said Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk. “Today’s action should give tribes reassurance that the Obama Administration is serious in preserving and protecting their cultural property.”

The Four Corners region, rich in archaeological resources, contains artifacts that are vitally important to the scientific, academic, and Native American communities. The illegally obtained relics include decorated Anasazi pottery, an assortment of burial and ceremonial masks, a buffalo headdress, and ancient sandals known to be associated with Native American burials. Additionally, improperly excavated archeological sites mean a significant amount of historical information is lost because the artifacts are not identified in the context of where they were located.

ARPA prohibits the unauthorized excavation and removal of archaeological resources on federal lands as well as the unlawful sale, purchase, or exchange of such resources. Under NAGPRA, any Native American human remains, funerary objects, objects of cultural patrimony and sacred objects must be repatriated to Indian tribes. The BLM will consult with tribes to determine cultural affiliation and to facilitate repatriation. For artifacts not subject to NAGPRA, the BLM will work with museums to stabilize, identify, and preserve
them under the provisions of ARPA, and make them available for scientific research and public education.

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