Looters beware: Tribes are fighting back

  • Julie Longenecker prepares archaeological site for aclass

    courtesy J. Longenecker

Lori Watlamet can't hold back tears when she talks about the looting of an old Native Indian village site in the Pacific Northwest's Columbia River Gorge. In May, with a reporter in tow, the law enforcement officer walked over a bluff that protects the site from plain view and her heart sank. Watlamet, a member of the Umatilla tribe, found backfilled holes, camouflaged buckets hidden in bushes and a crater the size of a Volkswagen bug.

"They are so sneaky," Watlamet says, her voice shaking with frustration and anger. "I don't know when they are getting in there. They just leave this big gaping hole, and who knows what they took out of it."

Thousands of ancient sites along the Columbia River Basin have been exposed to wind and water erosion since they were buried. The creation of dams in the era of the New Deal flooded or deposited silt on sacred sites near the river. But only in the last 100 years have a majority of the sites been exposed to the hands of looters.

Until recently, tribes had little control over thieves. Laws passed as early as 1906 made hunting for artifacts illegal without a permit, and more recent laws required land managers to protect sites on their land, but no one had the policing power to stop the practice. Even state and county law enforcement officers - professionals in catching criminals - had little luck nabbing desecrators in the act, and their lack of knowledge about the damage caused to a site left prosecutors with weak cases.

In the last decade, 13 tribes along the Columbia and Snake rivers have pushed hard for federal agencies to protect cultural sites on their land. The tribes' initiative has caused great change.

Taking a stand

"The majority of our ceded land is Forest Service land," says Jeff Van Pelt of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. "The Forest Service isn't really there to protect historic sites as much as it is there to cut timber. Congress passed laws, but without the money, the agency can't comply."

In the mid-'90s, Van Pelt and members of several other tribes formed working groups with tribal members and federal agency representatives to develop an action plan to protect sites. The Bonneville Power Administration, Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, whose dams had flooded or damaged many Native Indian sites along the river, gave $65 million over 15 years to the groups. The funds have helped groups survey sites in the region and develop long-term monitoring plans.

Van Pelt's group, the Wanapa Koot Koot, which means "people working along the river together," has surveyed the banks of the Bonneville and John Day reservoirs, discussed video monitoring of important sites and hired Watlamet as its first cultural-resource protection officer.

Watlamet is the only officer in the Columbia River Basin devoted entirely to the protection of Native Indian sites. She is responsible for 200 miles of river, stretching from the Bonneville Dam, about 20 miles west of Hood River in Oregon, to the Dworshak Reservoir near Orofino in Idaho. It's an area that sees thousands of visitors a year, and where it's unusual to find a site that hasn't been vandalized.

Watlamet's tools include high-powered scopes and night-vision goggles. She has become an expert at noticing details - knee prints in the dirt and bushes pushed aside to hide digging tools. She is particularly adept, say officials at agencies and police departments, at keeping in close contact with state and federal land managers in the region, officers at the numerous counties along the river and tribal members who call on her when they see suspicious activity.

"I've seen some pretty atrocious things," Watlamet says. "Petroglyphs chalked over and burial sites dug up. It's probably happening as we speak, and we just don't have enough people."

Getting others in the game

This Oct. 26 and 27, for the third year in a row, Van Pelt and Julie Longenecker, a staff anthropologist with the cultural-resource protection program, will train about 60 police officers and federal agency law enforcement personnel in site protection.

At a training center on the U.S. Department of Energy's Hanford site near Richland, Wash., Van Pelt and Longenecker create a replica of a buried site. They build earth ovens and gather fire-scarred rocks. Van Pelt carves arrowheads and stone tools. Based on knowledge from archaeological studies and tribal elders, Van Pelt and Longenecker place the artifacts and structural remnants in a large hole. Then the site is covered with dirt and flakes of rock are scattered across the top.

Van Pelt and Longenecker spend close to 10 months creating 10 sites, and then, in an act that distresses them both, the two loot their own creations.

It takes half a day for them to dig through the 10 sites, sift through dirt with screens and then plant tools, camouflage clothing, cigarette butts and Coke cans nearby.

Trainees divide into five teams, investigate the looted sites and gather evidence for a mock trial. Suspects, often played by Longenecker and Van Pelt, are available for interviews by the students. The teams present their cases to the deputy prosecuting attorney from Benton County, Wash., and an assistant attorney. After students establish their case, the attorneys determine whether or not it merits a trial.

Van Pelt and Longenecker have trained more than 200 officers since 1998. They offer basic awareness classes whenever needed for fisheries biologists, dam operators and others who work along the river. They are taught to look for suspicious activity and report it immediately.

"The training has helped," says Van Pelt. "We trained some fish biologists in Warm Springs, and they found people with screens and reported them. It turns out they were looting."

In the last two years, 14 citations have been issued to looters. Three major prosecutions have occurred in the last three years. In one case, Benton County officers arrested two people on Plymouth Island, Wash., for looting and found 31,000 artifacts in one home.

Van Pelt says the increase in citations and convictions never would have happened without educating officers and the public about looting - and including a tribal perspective. Often, officers view crimes involving cultural resources as "victimless," Van Pelt says, but, in fact, looting an American Indian site has direct impacts on native peoples.

"When I pass over to the next world, I have to come back in a way to watch my children and grandchildren," he says. "I am there teaching them. When burial sites are dug up, the spirit is pulled back to the bones. I can't fulfill my God-given commitment."

Beth Wohlberg, who just completed an internship at High Country News, reports for the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado.

You can contact ...

* Jeff Van Pelt, 541/276-3629, or Julie Longenecker, 509/946-1859, Confederated Tribes Cultural Resources Protection Program;

* Lori Watlamet, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fisheries Enforcement, 541/386-6363;

* Chuck James, Bureau of Indian Affairs, 503/231-6229;

* Lynda Walker, Army Corps of Engineers, 503/808-4508;

* To report looting activity in the Pacific Northwest, 800/487-FISH.

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