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Federal agents capped a two-year sting today, aimed at a black market of ancient Native American artifacts. The artifacts were allegedly taken from federal and tribal land in Utah and other states. Two dozen people have been arrested in a sweep that involved about 150 agents, deputies and police. This is just the latest attempt to stop a thriving black market that is a century old. From Salt Lake City, NPR's Howard Berkes reports.
HOWARD BERKES: The sting had been under way for two and a half years and involved a confidential informant, a major dealer in archaeological artifacts. The informant wore a wire and recorded transactions with two dozen suspects and spent more than $300,000 on more than 250 artifacts. They include sandals, bowls, pots, baskets, mugs, pipes, knives and other items believed illegally taken from federal and Indian land. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar spoke at a news conference announcing the sting.
BLOCK: Today's action is a sad reminder that the stealing and destruction of archaeological and American Indian treasures from public lands is a highly lucrative business for the criminals involved in those kinds of activities, and we will not tolerate that kind of activity in the United States.
BERKES: Indictments include charges of trafficking in stolen artifacts, and theft and depredation of government property. Most of the people indicted are from southeastern Utah, where the digging and selling of artifacts is a century-old subculture. It used to be legal and it involved archaeologists, museums and collectors. Congress enacted a series of laws protecting artifacts, burial sites and sacred Indian objects on federal land. But the digging continued, fed by a persistent black market. Craig Childs is writing a book about artifacts theft called "Finders Keepers."
BLOCK: When you pull them out of the ground, entire histories are gone. I mean, an artifact is detached from its story. It becomes just an object. It is a form of archaeological genocide where you are getting rid of the entire history of people living in a place.
BERKES: Those people pre-date modern tribes. They appeared and mysteriously disappeared in the Four Corners region centuries ago. Some of the artifacts are taken from graves sacred to Native Americans and some are considered sacred religious objects. Stopping illegal digging has been difficult because thousands of archaeological sites are spread across thousands of square miles of desert and canyon wilderness. Pothunters, as they're called, are almost never caught in the act. And Childs says they are not merely interested in money.
BLOCK: The stronger focus is finding the thing, going out into this place and figuring out the puzzle and getting your treasure. It is definitely a treasure hunter's sport.
BERKES: The last big bust of southern Utah artifacts hunters happened in 1986. No one was convicted then. And some of those charged ended up getting seized artifacts back. It helped feed an anti-federal mentality and suspicion about enforcement. Winston Hurst is an archaeologist born and raised and still working in the region.
BLOCK: People were treated like some inner city drug bust. They were pushing people around in their houses, you know, and muscling ladies and the kids, you know, it just fed the local tendency toward a sort of distrust of government anyway - it fed that tremendously.
BERKES: Since then, Hurst says, it's been hard to win people over who might see the logic of preserving artifacts for scientific study, and out of respect for Native Americans. Deputy Attorney General David Ogden was asked about that failed prosecution at a news conference today. But he wasn't around then and he said he couldn't address it.
BLOCK: I can tell you that we will - and the United States attorney is committed to prosecuting these cases appropriately and aggressively, consistent with the law. And that appropriate punishment will, we expect, would follow from that.
BERKES: If that happens, this will be the first major successful prosecution of its kind. Convictions could result in jail terms of from 1 to 10 years.
Howard Berkes, NPR News, Salt Lake City.
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