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A trove of looted artifacts, five years after BLM raids in Utah

Years after defendants surrendered their collections, the feds are caring for artifacts bound for repatriation with tribes.

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The volume of surrendered material dwarfed the 256 items at issue in the criminal charges, such as a hafted axe and a gourd containing a shell necklace that Jeanne Redd, James Redd’s wife, showed Gardiner. She told him they came from Floating House Ruin in Chinle Wash, which is in on tribal lands.

The biggest haul came from Crites’ Durango home, where officers discovered a secret room filled with artifacts. Another 800 objects were recovered from the home of James and Jeanne Redd.

At a glance

What is NAGPRA?

Passed in 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires federal agencies to document American Indian artifacts and human remains in their possession. The law establishes a process for returning certain items to tribes that claim cultural affiliation with them.

The Bureau of Land Management is now consulting with 28 Southwestern tribes that have potential claims on the more than 6,000 artifacts the agency seized as a result of a lengthy undercover investigation into an illegal trading network centered in Blanding.

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The Redd family sued the BLM and the officers who searched the home, alleging their "excessive force" and overbearing questions drove Redd to connect a hose from the tailpipe into his Jeep the day after a four-hour interrogation in his garage.

Portions of these suits have been dismissed, and U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby is deciding whether to dismiss the remaining claims against two agents.

While Redd family members continue to profess James Redd’s innocence, Jeanne Redd and her daughter pleaded guilty to possessing several looted artifacts. Jeanne Redd’s journals helped BLM curators determine where some artifacts were excavated.

Sherds, stones, tools, toys » The BLM has since catalogued hundreds of baskets, pottery vessels of all kinds, hand tools, cooking utensils, toys, ritual items, pendants, cradle boards, grinding stones and numerous other things used by ancient American Indians, according to BLM curator Nancy Mahaney, who supervises the warehouse repository.

Most are associated with the Anasazi, a culture that flourished on the Colorado Plateau from 750 AD to 1200 AD and the ancestors of the Hopi, Zuni and other Puebloan communities.

The actual number of individual items may far exceed 6,000 since many were catalogued in lots. For example, officers recovered countless sherds, many used as landscaping decorations at the Redd home. Broken pottery pieces are now contained in dozens of boxes weighing 20 to 25 pounds each. The facility also holds hundreds of metates, or mealing stones, and manos ancient American Indians used to grind corn.

Some defendants "were using some of the grinding stones to line their driveway. How they got them out of the site and to their house is a good question," Mahaney said.

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Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, tribes may claim artifacts looted from federal lands, as well as human remains held for decades in some of the nation’s most prestigious museums.

The 1990 law, better known as NAGPRA, requires federal agencies to inventory any "Native American funerary object, sacred object, or object of cultural patrimony" in their possession and consult with appropriate tribes to establish the objects’ cultural affiliation.

What is sacred? » Deciding what qualifies as "an object of cultural patrimony" is best left to the tribes, experts say.

"These are living cultures that descended from the tribes that inhabited that region. I’m not going to tell a Native American what may or may not be sacred to them. I can’t stress the importance of consultation enough," said Kara Hurst, registrar for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.

As Operation Cerberus was underway, federal agents retained Hurst, then working for the Natural History Museum of Utah, to care for the items Gardiner purchased. She also trained BLM field staff to properly record, package and transport artifacts seized from the suspects’ homes, and later worked for the agency.

With the help of the defendants, Hurst, Mahaney and other BLM officials identified at least 100 artifacts that were stolen from the Navajo reservation. The agency intends to hand those over to the Navajo Nation without going through NAGPRA’s arduous process, Mahaney said.

Establishing affiliations for the remaining objects will not be so easy. The BLM has twice assembled tribal representatives, covering their travel and lodging costs, at the repository to view the items.

The nine Apache tribes work together on repatriation claims to avoid fighting among themselves over specific objects, according to Riley. His White Mountain tribe hopes to repatriate any stolen artifact as soon as possible, regardless of how their ancestors used it.

"To Indian people everything is alive and sacred. They want us to prove that it is sacred or not sacred. That is a stupid question to ask. You have to live the life of an Apache and be a part of our land," Riley said. "We were put through genocide and we are still here."

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