An artifact collector - with little collection left

Federal agents seized about 1,700 artifacts from Miles Simpson’s collection of American Indian antiquities. More than three years later, the Bend man is working to get it all back — and he insists he did nothing wrong.

Kate Ramsayer / The Bulletin /

Published Jun 22, 2008 at 05:00AM

On the morning of Jan. 25, 2005, federal agents pounded on the door of Miles Simpson’s Bend house.

His girlfriend opened the door, and armed officers from the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, FBI and other agencies rushed in to execute a search warrant, Simpson said.

“I had three or four of them rush me, flashlights in my face, guns in my face,” he said.

For the entire day, he said, he was held under armed guard as agents sifted through his possessions. They seized much of his collection — court documents list arrowheads and stone tools, baskets and beadwork, including items collected by his late father, as well as books, photos and records related to artifacts.

“If they believed it pertained to Native Americans, they took it from my house,” Simpson said. But what the agents took seemed random to him — on one shelf they took three baskets but left eight, or on another they took three wooden mortars and left two, he said.

Three and a half years later, Simpson, 46, has not been charged with any crime, and his collection of artifacts and handi- crafts has not been returned to him. Federal officials say the investigation is ongoing and otherwise declined to comment on the case. The government has a five-year time period in which it could charge Simpson.

The seizure of Simpson’s collection was part of a multi-agency effort in Oregon to crack down on looters of American Indian archaeological sites, and on people illegally buying and selling artifacts.

Such crimes are picking up in Central Oregon, and some trace the increase back to meth- amphetamine-related activities, said a federal archaeologist. No matter who is doing the illegal digging or trading, say federal officials, it damages important American Indian sites and limits scientists’ ability to study the past.

But Simpson and some in the local collector community say Simpson’s collection is legal, and argue that the government needs to return his belongings and be held accountable for possible damage to the collection.

“This probably had some good motives,” said Steve Allely, a Sisters artist who replicates arti-facts, of the law enforcement effort. “Fine, catch the people who are digging. But if you net people who are not, you need to pull them out of the net and cut them loose.”

Finding looted sites

The search of Simpson’s house was one of 26 warrants executed in January 2005 as part of Operation Bring ’Em Back.

The Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies launched the effort several years earlier after getting reports of people stealing and damaging cultural resources on public lands in Central Oregon, said Dennis Shrader, a special agent with the BLM.

And because it’s rare to catch looters in the act, he said, the agency started an undercover operation.

Looting has been a problem in Central Oregon for many years, Shrader said. But in 2002, informants started reporting that semi-organized groups were now working together to share information and excavate artifacts. And in another new twist, methamphetamine seems to be playing a role in the problem, he said.

“We have found sites that have been excavated and destroyed, we have found large tracts of federal lands that have been grid-searched for finding artifacts,” he said. “We’ve had a variety of different incidents out there that have caused damage.”

It’s not the people who might pick up an arrowhead, check it out and then put it back down who are the big concern, said Paul Claeyssens, team leader for the Forest Service’s heritage stewardship group. It’s the people tied into the black market of international trade and drugs whom law enforcement officers have found in the forest, clearing sites of anything they see who are driving the problem.

“Some have speculated that it has to do with the insidiousness of methamphetamine addiction,” he said. “People are wired, they’re keyed in to shiny objects, they’ll collect everything in hopes of finding something valuable.”

The value of items can vary. On eBay, for example, a seller is asking $200 for a collection of 20 stone points. Others listed single arrowheads for between $3 and $10.

Cultural and scientific damage

The theft of artifacts has both scientific and cultural implications, Claeyssens said, since it cuts down on the number of clues archaeologists can use to study the history of an area. And it disturbs what many American Indians consider spiritual sites.

From a scientific perspective, archaeologists learn much more when they can study an artifact in relation to its surroundings, he said.

When people pick up things, they don’t know what they could be disturbing, Shrader said. It could be something that, if an archaeologist found and dated it, may change what we know about the area’s human history — a recent discovery in Southern Or- egon’s Paisley Caves, for instance, pushed back the known existence of humans in the Americas by about 1,000 years.

“It’s a very important resource, and it’s a nonrenewable resource,” Shrader said. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

From a cultural perspective, tribes including the Warm Springs, Klamath and Paiute feel it’s important to leave these objects in the landscape, since they represent the lives of their ancestors, Claeyssens said.

Tribal members see a lot of looting every year, said Bobby Brunoe, general manager for the natural resources branch of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs as well as the tribal historic preservation officer.

“What’s really concerning … burial sites are getting disturbed,” Brunoe said, adding there’s a black market for many of the artifacts. “It’s really disheartening for the tribes to see this going on. We try to monitor as best we can.”

It’s the tribes’ policy to not disturb sites, he said.

“You leave things in place. It’s just a part of the teachings down here from a tribal, spiritual aspect,” he said.

In one case, the tribes found a site where looters hunting for beads and other items just threw aside the human remains.

“Seeing that type of stuff firsthand is really disturbing,” Brunoe said.

There have been laws against people taking artifacts from federal land since the Antiquities Act of 1906, said David Tarler with the National Park Service’s Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act program. But that act was later ruled too vague.

Other rules have followed, including the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, which says people cannot take artifacts from public lands.

“If it’s an archaeological resource, and it’s from public or Indian lands, or offered for sale or trafficked or sold in interstate commerce, that’s a violation,” he said.

And while picking up an arrowhead in a national forest isn’t a criminal provision of the artifact-specific laws, doing so is still a theft of government property, he said.

The statute of limitations for criminal prosecution under the act is five years, Tarler said, and there is no limit for civil penalties.

Prosecutions from Operation Bring ’Em Back have been ongoing, Shrader said. The operation has resulted in 13 convictions of archaeological and drug-related crimes, and the identification of hundreds of looted sites, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

In November 2006, a Redmond man was sentenced to 30 months in prison and ordered to pay restitution to the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. He had tried to sell a skeleton he dug up near Crooked River Ranch.

Shrader said cases like this take time, especially when there are multiple people and agencies involved.

Simpson’s case is ongoing, Shrader said, so he could not comment specifically on it.

Simpson’s collection

Simpson, however, is confident he will not be charged with any crime.

“I can 100 percent guarantee that I will get that stuff back,” he said. “I did nothing wrong.”

The search warrant for Simpson’s house was executed after interactions he had with an undercover informant used by the BLM. According to the warrant, he was believed to be involved in the traffic of artifacts stolen from government lands.

Simpson said he was targeted just because he had a valuable collection, which was legally obtained.

An appraiser, restorer and seller of antiques, Simpson said he had built up his own collection of artifacts and American Indian crafts. He has bought things from state police auctions, he said, as well as from other auctions across the country. He also gathered artifacts from private lands.

“I have friends and relatives with farms and ranches from one end of the country to the other,” he said. “I don’t go on public land.”

When his father died in 1998, Simpson started storing his collection, too. Simpson talks with pride about the storage conditions for his artifacts and crafts.

“I have a room, it’s a museum-grade room — no sunlight, heat, humidity,” he said.

He had cornhusk bags — flat hemp-fiber bags that had corn- husk designs woven in — and southern Alaska coastal baskets, delicately woven with between 250 and 280 stitches per square inch.

“They’re the finest woven baskets in the world,” he said. “The ones I had were perfect — before they took them.”

He had beadwork bags and knife sheaths, stone mortars and pestles, frames of arrowheads, and atlatl weights — rare stone weights used as a counterbalance on weapons.

“I had one of the finest collections ever (of atlatl weights), and they threw it in the bottom of the box,” he said.

Informant meetings

The investigation used an informant, who is not named in the search warrant, whom Simpson said he encountered about a half-dozen times.

The informant, according to the warrant, had been arrested eight times between 1989 and January 2005, on suspicion of crimes including criminal mischief, failure to pay child support, conspiracy and the manufacture of methamphetamine, although he hadn’t had any felony convictions.

The two first met in September 2003, according to the warrant. The informant told Shrader, the author of the warrant, that Simpson talked about artifacts he had bought from others who collected on Forest Service land. A recording of that conversation wasn’t recoverable because of an equipment failure.

The next visit was six months later, according to the warrant. The informant sold 17 artifacts to Simpson, indicating they were excavated from a cave site that had human bones in it and hinting they were from BLM land.

On another visit three months later, Simpson bought more arti-facts from the informant after initially turning them down, according to the warrant. He didn’t ask for a certificate of origin, it said, which is required to ensure that items were collected legally.

Simpson said he never talked to the informant about buying illegally gathered artifacts. He said he knew where the artifacts were from because he had seen them before.

He said the informant first tried to buy some of his collection.

“Right off the bat, I said, ‘Nothing against you, but you and I will never do business,’” Simpson said. “‘I’m a collector, not a dealer.’”

Then, the informant tried to sell him some artifacts.

“I sent him on his way,” Simpson said. “He had everything in little boxes and bags, and I hate that.”

Then the informant showed up saying he had great stuff he had excavated. The two times he purchased items, he said he did so only because he felt sorry for the informant.

The first time, Simpson said, he recognized the collection as previously belonging to someone else in the area, and so he knew for a fact that the informant didn’t dig it up on federal lands. Some of the objects even had foam residue and letters on the back, he said, indicating they had been catalogued.

“I said, ‘I don’t want it,’” Simpson said, adding he turned the artifacts down three times.

But then the informant said his fiancée was dying of cancer, and the two needed gas money to drive to Nevada to get married.

“When you’re telling me (that story), I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt,” Simpson said. He agreed to buy the collection for $200.

On another visit, Simpson said, he bought several pieces for $60, again only after the informant said he needed gas money. Simpson said he could tell by the patination on the artifacts — indicating natural oxi- dation resulting from age or much handling — that they were surface finds, not something that had been dug up. And he added that he never advised the informant or other people to dig on federal lands.

He said, however, that it is legal to surface hunt on federal lands — something disputed by government staff — but that he doesn’t collect artifacts on federal lands anyway.

Allely, the Sisters artist, said while law enforcement officers seemed to think Simpson was “some evil kingpin,” he believes Simpson is a careful collector.

“Miles has collected off private land in the past — and that’s no secret — but with permission,” Allely said. “But he has always kind of gone out of his way to not get goodies off of public lands that are recent and shouldn’t have been removed.”

Allely examined Simpson’s collection after it was seized by federal agents and said it had been damaged.

“Things were just thrown in boxes with little packing (and) the baskets were all jammed together,” he said.

The Department of Justice has asked Simpson to provide information about where different items in his collection came from, and which ones belonged to his father, to possibly help expedite the return of the items, according to documents Simpson provided. But the letters also say the government can use the information against him.

Simpson said after what he’s been through, he doesn’t intend to cooperate.

Tough questions for collectors

For artifact collectors, cases like this don’t mean federal officials are going to be barging down doors to determine if their arrowheads are legal, Claeyssens said.

“I think most people, they shouldn’t be overly concerned,” he said. “In fact, (the Archaeological Resources Protection Act) is designed, and our efforts are designed, to really go after people that are actively removing artifacts from federal land and acquiring collections that have come recently through illegal means.”

Efforts like Operation Bring ’Em Back are trying to get into the trading networks to reduce the demand, so looters won’t have places to sell to.

But people should make sure what they’re buying was collected legally, even if that is a tough question to answer, Claeyssens said. He added that the easy thing to do is to buy reproductions or modern interpretations.

Even for legally collected artifacts, it would be nice if the tribes could get them back, Brunoe said. But there’s not much that they can do to get that result.

“There are people out there trying to do the right thing and trying to get things back to us,” he said, adding that the tribes are working with museums to repatriate human remains, and occasionally people do return private collections or even mail back human remains.

Beadwork and other crafts are in a different category, he said. Some tribal members do sell those items, and it is OK for people to have them in collections if purchased legally.

Determining the legality of artifacts is an ongoing concern for collectors, said Ken Schmidt, secretary of the Authentic Arti-fact Collectors Association. That’s especially true with varying and often vague state, county and federal rules.

Oregon law, for example, says that anytime someone finds 10 or more artifacts within a geographic area, they need to contact the state — but it doesn’t define the size of the area, he said.

Collectors often have to rely on the honesty of the seller, Schmidt said, adding that some members turn in suspicious listings on eBay.

“We have to respect the heritage, and it doesn’t matter if it’s bottle collectors respecting white heritage or arrowhead collectors respecting Native Americans,” he said. “We just don’t want to step on any toes. The bottom line is we have to follow the laws.”