SPOKANE, Wash. – Artifacts belonging to the Spokane, Colville, Nez Perce and Coeur d’Alene tribes were recently returned following a several-year investigation by federal authorities. Tribal representatives gathered at the federal courthouse in Spokane to receive more than 1,400 artifacts. Unfortunately, that is only a small percentage of the items stolen over the years by Kenneth L. Milette of Newport, Wash.
Bud Ellis, criminal chief in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, cautioned the many TV and newspaper reporters to not take any close-up photos of the items, saying “These are real important items.”
“One thing we seldom get to do when dealing with criminal conduct is to undo the damage the convict has caused. This case is a little different,” Ellis said. “Mr. Milette has been collecting and dealing with Indian artifacts and by his own admission broke the law in the process. He has been held accountable for that by the criminal justice system. We are now able to return some of those artifacts. We know from investigation these items came from specific sites and are being returned to the tribes we believe they belong to.”
Stan Speaks, BIA northwest regional director, spoke of the magnitude of artifacts Milette gathered. “This is only about one percent of what they took from the collector they busted.” They also reflect decades of looting and selling.
He had some items he could legally possess and the remainder will remain in federal custody, at least for the present. It has been impossible to prove the origin of many of the artifacts and those will remain in custody. It’s hoped that the origin can be determined, but some may never be returned. The items returned on this day were primarily stone items, beads and points.
Milette was indicted by a federal grand jury on seven counts pertaining to illegally possessing and selling Native American artifacts. He pleaded guilty to four of the seven charges and was sentenced to three years of supervised probation, $7,000 in restitution, a $10,000 fine, plus forfeiture of the artifacts.
Larry Greene, council member, represented the Nez Perce Tribe along with Nakia Williamson who works in the Cultural Resources Office. “What makes this scary is this guy knows the history of the tribe so he knows the different battlefields of the Nez Perce Tribe,” Greene said. “There were plenty of battles and we just recently had a memorial at the Whitebird battlefield and will soon have a memorial in Montana where Chief Joseph surrendered. He has to be aware of them. We got these items back, but what items he got and sold we’ll never know. I don’t know how you really put a value on something that is sacred.”
The Archaeological Resources Protection Act covers the illegal trafficking of Native American artifacts and human remains. Unfortunately it’s a largely unreported crime. It’s not just a crime of robbery, “It is also a crime against the culture as a whole,” Speaks said.
“Some of the laws protecting these sacred areas are lenient. They aren’t as strong as they should be,” Greene said. “Many times many items have been taken. We’re not sure what was saved and what was stolen and what is still out there. Some are the ancestral remains and some of the belongings that were given to them at the time of departure for their journey and to protect them on their journey.”
Gregory Abrahamson, Spokane tribal chairman, was one of several tribal representatives who thanked the court and the officers for their work and return of the artifacts. He also talked about the impacts to the tribe of people robbing graves and the black market sale and trade of these items.
Jim SiJohn, a Spokane elder, also serves on the Spokane tribal council and spoke of the difficulty in protecting burial grounds and other sacred sites. “My ancestors may be lying in someone’s basement. It saddens me. My ancestors lived here, who fought for this country here. If we don’t honor our ancestors then we lose our culture and our history and we never want to do that.”
The investigation began when an ad was noticed in a local paper which listed Native American items for sale. Milette was trying to fund his retirement by selling a large number of items for large amounts of cash. That began an investigation lasting several years culminating in his arrest and the return of the items that could be identified to the rightful tribes.