More than 1,400 artifacts stolen from ancient Native American graves and sacred sites in five Western states were returned Thursday to several local tribes.
Members of tribes in Idaho and Washington gathered at the federal courthouse in downtown Spokane, where officials returned the artifacts recovered during a federal investigation spanning at least five years.
“It saddens me to think my ancestors may have been lying in somebody’s basement,” said Jim SiJohn, an elder with the Spokane Tribe of Indians. “If we don’t honor our ancestors, we lose our culture and our history.”
The artifacts, including thousands of arrowheads and necklaces and part of a jawbone, were among thousands of items recovered from the collection of Kenneth L. Milette, of Newport, Wash.
Milette was indicted by a federal grand jury in September 2008 on seven counts related to illegally possessing and selling Native American artifacts and human remains.
Milette pleaded guilty to four of the seven counts and was sentenced in January to three years of supervised probation, $7,000 in restitution, a $10,000 fine and the forfeiture of the artifacts.
Some artifacts will remain in government custody, because it is impossible to determine where they came from, officials said.
The relics obtained by the government during the investigation represent only 5 percent of Milette’s collection and reflect decades of looting and trading, officials said.
Retired U.S. Attorney Tom Hopkins said the investigation began, in part, when he first saw an ad listing items for sale in the Nickel Nik want ads. Milette was interested in selling the items in bulk for large sums of cash to finance his retirement, Hopkins said. He also advertised online on sites such as eBay.
Undercover agents learned more about the gravesites and other ancient grounds where Milette allegedly dug up the items, including from the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn in Montana.
The items – belonging to the Spokane, Colville, Coeur d’Alene and Nez Perce tribes – were returned to tribal members Thursday.
“I don’t know how you could really put a value on something that is sacred,” said Larry Greene, of the Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho.
The illegal trafficking of Native American artifacts and human remains, covered by the federal Archeological Resources Protection Act, is a largely underreported crime. On average, about 800 incidents of looting on sacred sites each year are reported to Congress.
“We have to put people in boats on the water to patrol the river” to catch people looking to poach artifacts from tribal lands along the Spokane River, SiJohn said. “But because of funding we can’t do it 24 hours a day.”
Only 14 percent of reported looting incidents on federal lands are solved, and 96 percent of the people caught are charged with misdemeanor crimes, officials said. Four percent are charged with felonies, as was the case for Milette.
“It is a crime of theft,” said Stanley Speaks, of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “It is also a crime against the culture as a whole.”
The tribes were grateful for the federal government’s help in prosecuting Milette and returning the artifacts to their rightful place.
“I hope it sends a strong message,” Greene said. “I’m glad there is someone taking an initiative.”