Knute Berger: Indiana Jones, meth addict

Roundup: Talking About History

The artifact landscape has changed. Hunting for arrowheads, Indian tools, and old-time treasures is not only politically incorrect but often illegal. Time was when a fairly casual stroll along a river or on a beach or through the forest could produce all kinds of finds which people didn't think twice about pocketing. Back in the late 1980s, I visited the home of an old-timer on Alki Point, and on one wall of his cabin was a museum-quality display of Clovis spear points.

I envied the days of my father, who seemed to have a knack for running across exciting stuff when he was young, from bones to old military buttons. When he worked at a logging camp on the Olympic Peninsula in the 1930s, two loggers came across a musket ball buried deep in a tree they were felling. My father, a college boy, asked to see it and the tree where they found it. By counting the rings, he estimated it had been fired in the late 1700s — right around the time the Spanish established Washington's first European settlement, Nunez Genoa, in nearby Neah Bay. My dad tried to buy it, but he only convinced the men that it was something valuable. They apparently lost or traded it later during a wild weekend of drinking and whoring, and a piece of Northwest history was lost.

Such relics are not necessarily uncommon. In the old Northwest you could literally reach out and touch history wherever you went. Everyone could be an Indiana Jones. But now, relic hunting is pretty much a no-no. It ruins potentially important archaeological evidence. Findings on pubic lands are considered theft and may violate various laws designed to protect ecosystems and Native American rights. Sometimes, it may be downright grave robbing.

Many people are simply unaware of the laws. Others are fully aware, but artifact looting is their business. There's an active, legal trade in artifacts, but there is also a large illegal trade that is difficult to police. According to some law enforcement folks, one of the things that's been driving the thefts in recent years is methamphetamine. Meth has been an all-purpose scourge, blamed for ruining lives, dental hygiene, and spreading crime and toxic chemicals on our wild lands. Its popularity in rural areas around the country and on reservations has made it a problem on public tracts and tribal lands where there is plenty of room for mischief, from hidden drug labs to illegal timber cutting. But some in law enforcement have seen a particular connection between meth users and the theft of Indian and prehistoric artifacts.

In Oregon, a federal operation called Operation Bring 'Em Back, targeting the illegal traffic in artifacts, has led to recovery of literally"hundreds of thousands" of Indian artifacts. According to a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) report:

"In 2006, 11 suspects pleaded guilty to a variety of Federal charges, including conspiracy, violations of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, and violations of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). This investigation resulted in the first criminal conviction of NAGPRA in the Pacific Northwest. In addition, several other significant criminal activities were uncovered, including two methamphetamine labs, an indoor marijuana growing operation, and multiple wildlife poaching cases."

The meth-artifact connection has also been noted by the BLM as a more general phenomenon on lands it manages around the country:

[T]he BLM's law enforcement Agents and Rangers continued to investigate and prosecute a wide range of cases, including the illegal digging on and theft of artifacts from public lands. In many of the cases involving the theft of artifacts, the possession or the manufacturing of methamphetamine continued to be associated with arrested suspects.

There are a number of reasons why meth and artifacts might be linked. One is proximity: Rural areas are where you tend to find meth labs and arrowheads. Another is that some see looting as easy pickins, less risky than knocking over a liquor store. It's also lucrative: note the scale —"hundreds of thousands" — of artifacts. Finding a Native American grave can be like breaking into a bank vault. According to USA Today:

Martin McAllister, a former Forest Service archaeologist whose Missoula, Mont., company Archaeological Resource Investigations trains and consults with federal law enforcement officials, says the theft of artifacts from national parks and other federal land is"a huge, huge crime problem — a multimillion-dollar-a-year industry."In the Southwest, McAllister says, officials are finding more looting by methamphetamine addicts."A Native American pot is money. It's cash in your hand," he says.

Some people estimate the global illegal art and antiquities trade at $5 billion to $6 billion dollars per year, ranking it right behind arms dealing and drug smuggling....

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Randll Reese Besch - 10/18/2008

That would certainly curb the secret labs and addicts desperate to get money for their fixes.