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Mixed Results for Native American Artifact Amnesty Program - 2004-08-21

Every year, millions of dollars worth of stolen American Indian artifacts change hands. Many of those items were looted from reservations. Authorities prosecute thieves when they catch them. but, the number of prosecutions fall far short of the number of thefts. So, this summer, officials in the four corner states tried something new. They offered amnesty to looters who gave their stolen items back. The program ended this week and Mark Brodie reports on what it accomplished.

The Hayes Tank Area on the San Carlos Apache reservation doesn't look like a traditional archaeological site.

"So, alright, now we're sort of in the middle of this site that's been looted for many, many years," says Tribal Archaeologist Vernelda Grant. You mostly walk over sun-baked scrub-brush and dirt, but if you look down, you see shards of pottery scattered on the ground? relics of the Salado and Hohokam tribes that once lived in the southwestern desert. Ms. Grant says this site is a popular one for looters. "Lately, we've been having various types of items related to the Gaan [ceremonial] dancers being sold on ebay," she says.

Ms. Grant, who grew up on this reservation, knows the value of these ancient artifacts. "We've had one item up for sale for what, $1,000 to $3,000. Multiply that by, I do not even know how many items are out there, you know, it could be 50, could be 100, could be thousands."

The black market for stolen American Indian items is estimated in the millions of dollars a year, but Vernelda Grant says looters are taking more than profitable items. "These are things that we use to pray with, or they're used in our ceremonies and you know, the prayer keeps us in line to walk a good path and a good life," she says.

Ms. Grant says the decision to join the amnesty program wasn't an easy one for her tribe? and others in Arizona had similar misgivings. According to Diane Humetewa, the tribal liaison for the U.S. Attorney in Arizona, most of the state's 21 tribes gave the amnesty an overwhelmingly positive response, but only two submitted lists describing the items they wanted back.

"The unfortunate thing is there were more tribes out there who wanted to participate, but it was sort of difficult for the cultural leaders to agree to sort of divulge the descriptions or the particular uses for the items," she says.

Difficult to divulge, because the items are sacred and describing them to non-tribal members is often seen as sacrilegious. Still, Ms. Humetewa says the San Carlos Apaches and her own tribe, the Hopi, decided revealing those details was the lesser of two evils. "There was a sort of desperation on the part of those tribes to get these items back because each day, each year that a particular item is missing, people are losing the cultural significance of that item," she says.

Those items included ceremonial masks, headdresses - even an altar. None of the items on the tribes' lists in Arizona were returned, but several pots, a grinding stone and several sets of human remains, including skulls, did come back throughout the region. And, Walter Lamar of the Bureau of Indian Affairs says, officials got more out of the amnesty than returned artifacts. "This amnesty program has flipped the switch, it's lighted the light, it's created an awareness and an education that is so critical to those of us that investigate and seek out the people who have the remains of our ancestors," he says.

Now that the amnesty program is over, federal prosecutions will resume, with penalties of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Despite calling the program a success, the U.S. Attorney for Arizona says it'll likely be a long time before law enforcement offers this kind of amnesty for American Indian artifacts again.