The oddly aggressive enforcement of cultural artifact laws

The Indianapolis Star has the story of an unusual and aggressive action by the FBI:

FBI agents Wednesday seized “thousands” of cultural artifacts, including American Indian items, from the private collection of a 91-year-old man who had acquired them over the past eight decades.

An FBI command vehicle and several tents were spotted at the property in rural Waldron, about 35 miles southeast of Indianapolis.

The Rush County man, Don Miller, has not been arrested or charged.

Robert A. Jones, special agent in charge of the Indianapolis FBI office, would not say at a news conference specifically why the investigation was initiated, but he did say the FBI had information about Miller’s collection and acted on it by deploying its art crime team.

FBI agents are working with art experts and museum curators, and neither they nor Jones would describe a single artifact involved in the investigation, but it is a massive collection. Jones added that cataloging of all of the items found will take longer than “weeks or months.”

“Frankly, overwhelmed,” is how Larry Zimmerman, professor of anthropology and museum studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis described his reaction. “I have never seen a collection like this in my life except in some of the largest museums.”

The monetary value of the items and relics has not been determined, Jones said, but the cultural value is beyond measure. In addition to American Indian objects, the collection includes items from China, Russia, Peru, Haiti, Australia and New Guinea, he said.

Perhaps you can see the problem, here. Right now, there appears to be no evidence that Miller has done anything illegal.  The FBI plan is apparently to seize the contents of an elderly man’s lifelong hobby, then force him to prove he obtained each item in his collection legally.

The aim of the investigation is to determine what each artifact is, where it came from and how Miller obtained it, Jones said, to determine whether some of the items might be illegal to possess privately.

Jones acknowledged that Miller might have acquired some of the items before the passage of U.S. laws or treaties prohibited their sale or purchase.

In addition, the investigation could result in the “repatriation” of any of the cultural items, Jones said.

This is part of a larger national effort to enforce relatively recently laws prohibiting private citizens from obtaining and collecting certain cultural artifacts, particularly items of Native American origin. Those laws have an admirable goal. But they’re leading to overwrought police actions that are ensnaring people who may have bought artifacts at a time when doing so was legal, dug them up when doing so was legal or were unaware of changes in the law.

Last year, for example, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Division of Law Enforcement sent heavily-armed agents to raid the homes of people suspected of collecting artifacts.

Jacky Fuller was sound asleep beside his wife of 33 years when pounding at the door jolted him awake. The 54-year-old father of two and faithful Jehovah’s Witness stumbled out of bed in his underwear. It was not yet dawn, but the doorbell was ringing, and the pounding sounded like someone about to knock the door off the hinges. Heart hammering, he pulled open the door and stared into gun barrels.

Whoever had come for him wore helmets and bulletproof vests and carried tactical rifles, and as they pulled him outside at his home in Fortson, Ga., they said he was under arrest.

That same morning, Feb. 27, other agents pounded on Terry Tinsley’s door outside Tallahassee. He’s 52 and hard of hearing, and his house had been broken into twice before, so he had been sleeping with a handgun within reach. He grabbed his weapon, ready to fire on the first intruder, when he heard someone shout: “Law enforcement!”

At 25-year-old Nate Curtis’ home, not far away in Havana, agents handcuffed his wife, he claimed, and seized his computers and cellphone. William Walters, 48, said agents surrounded his truck in Dade City as he headed to work. Shawn Novak wasn’t home, but agents harassed his wife at work until she gave them permission to search their house, said Novak, 47. “They tortured my wife all day long,” he said. “They threatened her, saying they were going to break the door down.”

In all, FWC agents raided six homes, arrested 14 people from Big Pine Key to south Georgia, and charged them with more than 400 felonies. The raids capped a two-year undercover investigation that cost the state more than $130,000, not including the cost of the tactical raids or subsequent prosecution. The sting, called Operation Timucua, netted people with clean criminal records, including a brick mason, a 24-year military veteran and a 74-year-old retired University of South Florida professor. It drove suspects into debt and wrecked their reputations. One man got divorced. One committed suicide.

The mission: to stop the buying and selling of artifacts.

I remember collecting arrowheads as a kid. Depending on the state and the land on which you’re finding them, that in itself may or may not be legal today. Some states began banning the practice decades ago. But the laws were rarely enforced, and when they were, authorities targeted people stealing from preserved sites or tribal lands, or selling high-dollar artifacts.

No more. Under the phalanx of state, federal, and tribal laws, it may be a felony not only to buy and sell some manmade artifacts, but also to remove them from the bottoms of creek beds or dig them from the dirt. Most of the people busted in the Florida raids were hobbyists. And it’s conceivable that some of them had no idea they were breaking the law — though it also seems likely that some probably did. (The article excerpted above explains the complexities in Florida’s laws.)

In parts of Utah, digging for artifacts has become a cultural tradition in and of itself. But beginning in the 1990s, the federal government began to periodically send undercover informants to buy the relics dug up by locals, then staged highly aggressive raids on the sellers. Here’s the NPR description of a massive series of raids in 2009 in the town of Blanding:

Dozens of armed federal agents swept into Blanding, Utah, on June 10, arresting 17 people there and ending a two-year federal sting aimed at a black market in ancient American Indian artifacts. Three weeks later, anger and grief persist.

“There’s going to be a scar for a long time,” says Lynette Adams, a retired schoolteacher in the predominately Mormon town of 3,600. “There are some pretty strong feelings — not about what people are being accused of, but how they were arrested.”

The agents from the FBI and the federal Bureau of Land Management wore body armor, waved weapons, screamed instructions and shackled neighbors at the wrists, ankles and waists, according to witnesses. And they did that with suspects who ranged from 27 to 73 years old.

“These aren’t terrorists,” Adams complains, her voice rising. “They’re not rapists and murderers.”

Those targeted include a high school teacher (the county sheriff’s brother), a member of the Utah Tourism Hall of Fame and the town’s most prominent physician.

That physician, a beloved figure in the community who provided free and discounted health care to Native Americans, later killed himself. So did two others caught in the stings.

These laws and regulations are of course to preserve the cultural heritage of Native Americans, a group that has been subjected to a litany of awful abuses over the years, and which still suffers from the legacy of those abuses today. I find nothing objectionable about laws prohibiting digging for or taking artifacts from federal or tribal lands. Laws against selling artifacts that are already in private hands seem a little more problematic. Those laws ostensibly exist to drive down demand so there’s no incentive to dig for more, but it seems clear that they aren’t working. It also appears to be difficult to discern from the state, local and tribal laws exactly what is legal and what isn’t. Just laws require clarity.

But the most troubling thing about these investigations is the amount of force the governments have brought to bear when making arrests. According to this New York Times article about the Utah raids, “The Justice Department has portrayed the arrests as evidence of the Obama administration’s commitment to justice for American Indians.” That sounds like the federal government was using overwhelming force not because of the threat posed to agents by the artifact collectors, but to send a message about how seriously the Justice Department takes the laws against artifact looting. And anytime the government uses violence to send a message, we ought to be concerned.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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