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Thieves of time.

Byline: The Register-Guard

It's difficult for many people to fathom the pain and anguish inflicted on American Indians by the looting of the remains of their ancestors.

Imagine for a moment that police inform you that robbers have raided the pioneer cemetery where your great-grandparents are buried, dug up their graves and stolen their remains.

That gruesome scenario provides a glimmering of what tribal members experience when the graves and ancestral homes of long-dead Native Americans are plundered.

For Native Americans, the damage inflicted by the desecration of ancestral remains runs far deeper. As Louie Pitt Jr., governmental affairs director for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, testified in federal court in Eugene on Thursday, the looting of graves and other sacred site is "a horrible attack on our way of life. It is almost unspeakable, emotionally, in terms of the damage it does to us as a people."

Pitt's testimony came during the sentencing of Michael J. Orf, a Redmond man convicted of unearthing and selling an Indian skeleton. The case is part of major federal investigation called "Operation Bring 'em Back." The investigation, which began in 2000 and has so far yielded 13 convictions, is the largest of its kind in U.S. history, targeting illegal artifact excavation and trafficking in American Indian remains.

Regrettably, it will taken many such operations to stem the tide of cultural looting, which federal officials say has reached epidemic proportions and has become a multi- million dollar criminal enterprise.

A primary reason for the increase is the lack of law enforcement, which makes federal lands, especially those in the isolated, artifact-loaded West and Southwest, easy pickings for thieves. Since only a third of the known archeological sites in the country have been catalogued, it's impossible to know how much has actually been stolen.

Another reason is the existence of a market for looted artifacts and remains - the buyers bear a heavy responsibility for these crimes.

Based on the results of Operation Bring 'em Back, which is just completing its first phase, the looting is massive in scale. Federal authorities have so far seized more than 100,000 artifacts stolen from more than 100 cultural sites.

The looters come from all walks of life. Several years ago, authorities busted a sophisticated artifacts theft ring based in Las Vegas that was led by a group of construction workers. Often, as in the case of at least one Operation Bring 'em Back defendant, the thefts are tied to the drug trade. Because stolen artifacts can be converted so easily to cash and are so difficult for authorities to trace, they've become a form of currency for drug dealers. Not surprisingly, an increasing number of looters in the West are methamphetamine addicts who exchange stolen artifacts for drugs.

For Native Americans, the conviction of cultural thieves such as Orf, who was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison and a $20,000 fine, brings a measure of relief. But the wounds caused by the brazen looting of sacred sites are deep and lasting.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Looting native remains is 'a horrible attack'
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Nov 3, 2006
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