Officials Try to Recover Native American Artifacts

This week, federal officials announced the largest-ever investigation into the theft of Native American remains and artifacts. Methamphetamine addicts are accused of looting archaeological sites across Central Oregon.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

This week, federal officials announced the largest ever investigation into the theft of native American artifacts and remains. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

Operation Bring 'em Back is meant to catch looters and retrieve stolen items from archeological sites across central Oregon. From member station KLCC in Eugene, Ann Dornfeld reports.

ANN DORNFELD: For more than three years federal investigators have tracked gangs of artifact-looters and grave robbers in central Oregon. For a century, it's been illegal to take artifacts from public lands, but thieves are doing it anyway and selling relics on the black market.

U.S. Attorney Karen Immergut says operation Bring 'em Back uncovered more than a million dollars in theft and destruction.

Ms. KAREN IMMERGUT (U.S. Attorney): This case is also about the theft of really the spirit of Native Americans, through the theft of human remains. That is something that is so deep to the core of their spirituality that it really hits them in their very heart.

DORNFELD: Immergut says an undercover operation has led to the conviction of 13 people so far, the latest was Michael Orf(ph) who pleaded guilty to desecrating and trafficking a Native American skeleton. Orf discovered the bones as a boy along the Deschutes River. Years later he dug up the skeleton and stuck it in a banana box in his mother's attic.

Orf's mom told him to rebury the bones - she was dreaming about them. Instead, a couple of years ago, Orf tried to sell the skeleton to a police informant for $10,000. Orf settled for $1,000 - he needed the money for methamphetamines. Karen Immergut says meth was a common thread in the looting cases.

Ms. IMMERGUT: Whether stealing mail, scrap metal, or ancient Native American artifacts, methamphetamine addicts continue to victimize many different segments of our society.

DORNFELD: Michael Orf was sentenced to 30 months in prison and 3 years supervised release. He was also required to pay $20,000 in restitution to the confederated tribes of Warm Springs.

Mr. WILSON WEWISE(ph) (Northern Paiute Tribe) We got the remains back, but I don't the sentence was as harsh as it should have been.

DORNFELD: Wilson Wewise a Northern Piute Tribe spiritual leader. He says Orf is too poor to make good on the fine any time soon, and Orf should have gotten more time.

Mr. WEWISE: I wasn't sold on his testimony, that he had ignorance of the laws. I think nobody in their right mind, except for a morbid infatuation, would keep human remains in a box in their closet or their attic without knowing that that person one time was a living soul.

DORNFELD: Bones were not the only thing stolen, much of the loot was hunting weapons - atladles(ph), darts and spear tips from tribes like the Klamath and Burns Paiute. U.S. Forest Service Archeologist Debra Barner(ph) says thieves are getting more aggressive. She points to crime scene photographs that racked up dirt.

Ms. DEBRA BARNER (Archeologist, U.S. Forest Service): Not all of this is just on the surface, these people are digging very deep holes in our archeological sites they are destroying the integrity. Sometimes they're going in and they are taking just entire sites.

DORNFELD: Federal officials say the investigation isn't over, they'll now go after antiquity traffickers across the country. The artifacts seized so far will be repatriated, but it will be hard to figure out which relics belong to which tribes.

For NPR News I'm Ann Dornfeld in Eugene, Oregon.

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