Looting the past
Reservation resident sentenced for theft at archaeological site
By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times
WINDOW ROCK - The sentencing of a Kayenta man last week for stealing archaeological artifacts on the Navajo Reservation may be a first.
Nickolas Greer, 62, was sentenced by U.S. Magistrate Morton Silver to three months probation, including 180 days of home confinement, and ordered to pay the Navajo Nation $8,592 in restitution. He also lost ownership of his all-terrain vehicle.
While pot hunting is a problem on most reservations, prosecutions in the past have centered on people coming onto the reservation to dig among ruins and collect whatever artifacts they can find for sale in the private collector's market.
But, in this case, it was a reservation resident that was charged with theft of tribal property, a Class A misdemeanor, and a violation of the Archaeological Resource Protection Act.
According to the charges, Greer went to a known archaeological site in a remote canyon - the exact location is still being kept secret to protect the area from other looters - in his vehicle. He then dug up and partially excavated the site, which contained at least one human burial dating back almost 800 years.
In the process, he removed a whole pottery vessel, a broken pottery vessel and a mano.
Alan Downer, director of the Navajo Nation's Historic Preservation Office, said efforts are made to educate people who come to live on the reservation for one reason or another not to disturb archaeological sites or to remove artifacts.
Most of the school systems on and near the reservation have cultural sensitivity courses for new teachers during which visitors are told about federal laws protecting these sites and how much trouble a person can get into by violating these laws.
Both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service also provide information to new employees about the consequences of pot hunting and caution against even picking up pottery shards along the roadside or within the reservation boundaries.
Ronald Maldonado, an archaeologist with the Historic Preservation Office, said a lot of people disturb sites on the Navajo Reservation for a variety of reasons, including commercial looting and as a hobby.
Navajo Nation archaeologists say that many of the known sites on the reservation have been vandalized at one time or another which is why many of the more recent excavations have not been made public.
Not only is the theft of artifacts from these sites a criminal action, but archaeologists also point out that once a site is raided, its value for historical research decreases since the location of the item and its placement within the ruins can often tell researchers a lot about the people who left it.
Over the last 150 years, tens of thousands of artifacts have been removed from the reservation, many of them by archaeological teams sponsored by museums from 1880 to 1920 who were trying to complete their collections of Native American artifacts.
Hundreds of burial sites were disturbed in an effort to get ceremonial objects, such as medicine bundles, for either museum collections or sale to private collectors. Now some of these artifacts are coming back.
Downer said that as a result of the passing of the repatriation act a decade or so ago, museums have to provide the Navajo Nation with a list of cultural items that belong to the tribe and were taken without approval.
Downer's office now has hundreds of these lists and the items are slowly being returned.
The process could go faster if his office had the manpower to sift though all the letters and determine what should be done with the artifacts.
The one thing the tribe doesn't want to do, he said, is get these objects back and just store them away in a warehouse.
Instead, Downer's office works with medicine men and tries to find someone who can make use of the ceremonial objects. While there are a few things in storage, most of the items that have been returned so far are now back in use, he said.
There have been a few instances where the object is to be used for a ceremony that is no longer performed, usually because there is no one alive who knows how to perform it. In those cases, a special ceremony is done and the object is returned to its natural state.
Downer said that with the present level of staffing and the number of museums with artifacts, it's going to take decades, if not generations, to get the items back. In the meantime, Downer's office keeps in touch with the museums and instructs them on the proper care of the artifacts,