People of the Dirt: FBI Bust of Remains Collector Hints at Sensitivity to Native Issues

AP ImageIn this aerial photo taken from WTHR Chopper 13, FBI agents work around the home of 91-year-old Donald Miller in Waldron, Ind. on Wednesday, April 2, 2014. Authorities seized thousands of Native American, Russian, Chinese and other artifacts that have "immeasurable" cultural value from Miller's private collection, the FBI said Wednesday. The items, which also came from Haiti, Australia, New Guinea and Peru, were collected by Miller over eight decades, FBI Special Agent Robert Jones said at a news conference.
AP Image
In this aerial photo taken from WTHR Chopper 13, FBI agents work around the home of 91-year-old Donald Miller in Waldron, Ind. on Wednesday, April 2, 2014. Authorities seized thousands of Native American, Russian, Chinese and other artifacts that have “immeasurable” cultural value from Miller’s private collection, the FBI said Wednesday. The items, which also came from Haiti, Australia, New Guinea and Peru, were collected by Miller over eight decades, FBI Special Agent Robert Jones said at a news conference.


Part One

The recent discovery by the FBI of a giant horde of Native artifacts and remains held by Don Miller in Rush County, Indiana offers an opportunity to take a deeper look into the eccentric, obsessive and sometimes shadowy world of such collecting.

Miller, 91, has been well known by as a collector of Indian and other artifacts for years. His collection includes the remains of over 100 Native ancestors, according to tribal leaders consulted by the FBI in the case. Many of the remains are labeled with names that can be traced to Native families alive today. “He had a head with an arrowhead stuck in it, like a skull and all kinds of Indian artifacts from arrowheads to hatchets to peace pipes to just anything,” neighbor Joe Runnebohm told the Indianapolis Star.

According to Drew Northern, FBI Supervisory Special Agent, the agency is reaching out to Tribal Historic Preservation Officers for assistance in repatriating items and remains found at Miller’s home.  Within days of the find, the FBI coordinated a conference call and face-to-face meeting with THPO leaders at the Indianapolis office. “Building lasting relationships with tribes and repatriation is our goal,” Northern said.

Although early news reports described the FBI removal of the artifacts and remains from Miller’s home as a raid, later reports indicated that Miller is cooperating with authorities and had invited them into his home to take the items.

The exterior of Don Miller's home in Rush County, Indiana, where artifacts were found. (Pember)
The exterior of Don Miller’s home in Rush County, Indiana, where artifacts were found. (Pember)


Although Agent Northern would not discuss how Miller came to the attention of the FBI, it seems likely that the collector may have been trying to sell or donate his artifacts. According to the Greensburg Daily News, Miller recently offered his collection to the Rush County Historical Society.  Since the organization has limited space, leaders declined his offer.

Many of today’s natural history museums collections are based on donations from wealthy antiquarians wishing to leave personal legacies, says Christopher Moore, professor of Anthropology at the University of Indianpolis. “As colonial empires expanded in the 18th and 19th century, wealthy travelers would bring strange things back with them, often amassing huge collections that they displayed in their homes.”

This colonial practice continues today. Miller amassed his collection during 52 years of world travel as a missionary. He made no secret of his collection and frequently invited school groups and neighbors in to see his private museum, that included not only Native artifacts and remains but also cultural items from all over the world. A 1992 piece in the Indianapolis Star told the story of Miller and his personal museum.

Although some of the items in his collection may have been acquired illegally, no charges have been brought against Miller. Many of the artifacts were found by Miller during his travels, but he has so many items that it seems reasonable to assume he also bought or traded.

According to a Native artifacts dealer who asked to remain anonymous, Miller was a regular at artifact shows in the region.

Miller could not be reached for comment. Several prominent signs are currently posted along the property line of his Rush County home warning that trespassers will be prosecuted.

We may never learn complete details about Millers great horde and what drove him to amass it. His story, however, brings up tantalizing questions about those who are compelled to dig the earth in search of such treasures.

The subculture of artifact hunting, collecting, trading and selling spans an enormous spectrum from benign to bizarre, and involves a vast array of participants, from aging missionaries to meth heads.

Although the general public opinion regarding the legality and damage of digging for and collecting artifacts is slow to change, authorities are stepping up efforts to address this practice.

Bambi Kraus, President of the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers describes the FBI’s handling of the Miller case as a sea change for the agency. “This has never happened before that I know of, “ she said of the FBI’s decision to bring in tribes at the beginning of such an investigation.

“It was worth all those years of urging people to work with Indian tribes,” said Kraus.

Ben Barnes, second chief of the Shawnee tribe of Oklahoma, drove to Indianapolis to participate in the tribal consultation meeting with the FBI. He was impressed by agents’ displays of respect and concern especially regarding remains.

“The agents have been very active in making sure the ancestors are being taken care of; they are treating them respectfully and storing them in a special place away from other evidence.”

Past FBI investigations and seizures of Native artifacts have not ended as well such as the 2009 case in Utah.

One of those arrested during what then Interior Secretary Ken Salazar described as the biggest bust of Native artifact thieves, committed suicide. Residents of the region were outraged over what they described as heavy-handed tactics used by the FBI and the Bureau of Land Management, whose officers bust into suspects homes armed and wearing flak jackets.

Agent Northern did not respond directly to questions regarding the impact of the Utah case on the FBI’s handling of this case. “Our goal is to be as transparent,” he said, “mindful and respectful as possible and try to learn from what hasn’t gone well in the past.”



Yakama Nation Strikes Historic Agreement With DOJ, FBI To Settle Litigation Over 2011 Reservation Raid

FBI Agrees To Communicate With Yakama Police Before Entering Yakama Indian Country

Source: Intercontinental Cry

AUGUST 26, 2013 – Toppenish, WA – The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation have reached an unprecedented, out-of-court settlement with the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), principally the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

The settlement fully and finally resolves Yakama’s lawsuit against the FBI and several of its sister law enforcement agencies, as well as various county and municipal police agencies from Washington State, Mississippi and Virginia. That suit arose from a federal task force raid of Yakama Reservation trust lands that commenced at dawn on February 16, 2011. Upon word of the settlement on August 15, 2013, U.S. District Court Judge Rosanna Peterson closed the case.

“Today is historic. The United States has agreed to honor the law enforcement protocols set forth in the Yakama Treaty of 1855. That is unprecedented.” said Yakama Nation Tribal Council Chairman and former police chief Harry Smiskin. “From today forward the FBI will communicate with Tribal Police before they enter Yakama Indian Country. I am confident that the resulting cooperation between federal and tribal cops will greatly improve public safety throughout our territories.”

Through Article II of the Yakama Treaty of 1855, the Yakama Reservation was set apart for the exclusive use and benefit of the Yakama Nation. To that end, the Yakama Treaty makes clear that no “white man” shall be permitted to reside upon Yakama Indian Country without permission from the Yakama Nation. Federal Treaty negotiators explained to the Yakama that Article II meant that no one – not even United States agents, with the lone exception of today’s Bureau of Indian Affairs agents – would be permitted to step onto Yakama Reservation lands without the Yakamas’ consent.

Also, in Article VIII of the Yakama Treaty, the United States and Yakama Nation set forth a process for delivering Yakama criminals or suspects who are in Yakama Indian Country to federal authorities. Federal Treaty negotiators explained to the Yakama that Article VIII meant there would be a consultation process between the Head Chief or all of the Yakama Chiefs, and the United States, relative to any Yakama alleged to have committed a wrong, before they might be delivered up to federal authorities.

The settlement agreement between Yakama and DOJ is called, “Recitals of Joint Law Enforcement Goals.” It recites that:

• “The Parties have a common interest in preventing violence, fighting crime in, and ensuring the safety and security of Yakama Indian Country…”

• “The United States embraces the federal government’s special trust responsibility to and relationship with the Yakama Nation, consistent with the Treaty of 1855, federal law, Executive Orders, and judicial decisions.”

• “The United States acknowledges that the Yakama Nation has no interest in promoting, condoning, or protecting criminal activities by its members; as such, the Yakama Nation will not intentionally harbor fugitives and desires to partner with the United States in law enforcement matters.”

• “The United States recognizes that maintaining a close and cooperative relationship with the Yakama Nation is essential to preventing and combating crime and assisting crime victims.”

• “The United States recognizes that in an age of increasingly complex criminal and national security threats, the common interests of the Yakama Nation and the federal government are best served by appropriate coordination, communication and information-sharing between the Parties.”

• “The Parties agree that it is in the best interests of both governments to identify practical ways to coordinate and communicate effectively with respect to law enforcement matters.”

• “Both Parties commit to acting in good faith to advance and act consistently with these goals.”

The operative provision of agreement provides:

In keeping with its law enforcement duties, DOJ law enforcement remains committed to communicating with Yakama Tribal Police concerning its law enforcement activities in Yakama Indian Country, as operational integrity concerns, including officer and public safety, permit, and will communicate with tribal police at the earliest prudent and practicable opportunity about enforcement operations undertaken in Yakama Indian Country (emphasis added).

In March 2011, the Yakama Nation sued federal law enforcement agencies and several local governments for violating these federal Treaty provisions when raiding a Yakama member-owned business on Yakama trust lands without providing any advance notice to Yakama authorities, and in turn barring Yakama Nation cops who arrived at the scene of the raid to help keep the peace.

Since the summer of 2012, the parties engaged in settlement discussions and negotiations. In June 2013, Yakama reached out-of court settlements with Yakima County, Benton County, and the local governments from Virginia and Mississippi (Yakima Herald Republic).

Historic pact: Feds to notify Yakamas of warrant activity

AUGUST 27, 2013

By Phil Ferolito / Yakima Herald-Republic

In a historic move, the U.S. Department of Justice has agreed to notify Yakama tribal police before executing search and arrest warrants against tribal members on tribal land.

The move could help widen the path for the Yakama Nation, a sovereign nation, to have its full civil and criminal authority over its people returned.

“It’s historical from the standpoint that there is not another agreement like this with any other tribe and the U.S. Department of Justice,” Tribal Council Chairman Harry Smiskin said Monday during a telephone interview.

For decades, the lack of procedures involving search and arrest warrants between tribal and nontribal authorities on the 1.2-million-acre reservation have sparked disputes, including the Feb. 16, 2011, federal raid on King Mountain Tobacco, which is owned and operated by Yakama tribal member Delbert Wheeler in White Swan.

Federal authorities took computers, records and other documents from Wheeler’s business without informing tribal leaders and even blocked tribal police from entering the property during the raid.

In response, the tribe sued the U.S. Department of Justice in March 2011 for allowing the FBI to execute the raid without notifying tribal authorities. Also named in the lawsuit were Yakima and Benton county sheriff’s offices and government agencies in Virginia and Mississippi for their involvement in the raid. Wheeler is accused of avoiding state cigarette taxes in those states.

Similar agreements have been reached with Yakima and Benton counties and Virginia and Mississippi authorities, and the case subsequently has been dismissed.

Smiskin said the agreements reaffirm the tribe’s ability to govern itself and clearly establish procedures for outside agencies seeking to arrest tribal members on tribal land.

Benton and Yakima counties have agreed to not only allow a tribal police officer to be present when executing such warrants, but also to book tribal suspects into the tribe’s jail and go through an extradition process.

However, those arresting procedures may not apply to federal authorities who often have jurisdiction over serious cases on the reservation, Smiskin said.

Those cases usually are forwarded to the FBI from tribal police.

Smiskin said he’s seen improved communication between federal and tribal authorities since discussions about the agreement began not long after the lawsuit was filed.

“They have been very cooperative in that regard, in alerting us before coming on to the reservation to issue any warrants,” he said.

FBI spokeswoman Ayn Sandalo in Seattle said she couldn’t comment on the agreement because it was part of litigation, but said the FBI has always worked well with tribes.

“The FBI has always valued its partnerships with tribal authorities,” she said. “So for decades now, we’re continuing to build on that foundation and looking for ways to improve our working relations.”

For more than half a century, civil and criminal authority over tribal members on tribal lands has been confusing at best.

In 1855, the Yakamas signed a treaty with the federal government that allowed the now-10,000-member tribe to govern itself. It has its own police department and jail.

But in 1953, Congress enacted Public Law 280, which allowed several states to take over criminal and much civil authority over tribal members on their own reservations.

Yakama tribal authorities have retained much criminal authority over its members, but are now petitioning the state in a process called “retrocession” to have the rest, including civil authority, over its people returned.

Smiskin said the agreement could strengthen the tribe’s petition.

“I assume it would add to the petition for retrocession,” he said.

FBI investigate the death and possible sexual assault of toddler on tribal land


July 24, 2013

IDABEL, OK — The FBI is investigating the death and possible sexual assault of a 2-year-old on tribal land in McCurtain County, authorities said Wednesday.

The toddler, whose name was not released, died about noon Tuesday near Idabel, FBI Special Agent Rick Rains said. Because the death occurred on land in trust for a tribe, the FBI has jurisdiction in the case, Rains said.

No arrests have been made and no charges have been filed, but authorities are questioning a potential suspect who was being held on unrelated charges, Rains said.