It took a year of investigation to finally nail Mammoth Lakes, Calif. anesthesiologist Jonathan Bourne on 21 felony counts of allegedly looting Native artifacts from private lands and national parks. But he is just one of many who simply take such items as a matter of course with no thought to their sanctity, according to tribal preservation officers.
“That’s like a way of life around here. There probably isn’t a person in this valley that doesn’t have artifacts in their house,” said Kathy Jefferson Bancroft, tribal historic preservation officer on the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Reservation, after Bourne’s indictment earlier this month. “Go to church on Sunday, and the whole family would go out and collect artifacts.”
Other tribal officials have seen it too.
“Everybody has kind of done that all along,” concurred Raymond Andrews, historic preservation officer for the Bishop Paiute Tribe in California. “It was a weekend thing that they would do.”
Bourne was arraigned on October 5 before United States Magistrate Judge Barbara A. McAuliffe after a federal grand jury returned the 21-count indictment against him. He is charged with violating the Archeological Resources Protection Act, said United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner in a statement.
“This indictment shows that the prohibited acts including the unauthorized damage, alteration, excavation, and removal of archaeological resources on federally managed public lands is a serious matter,” said U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement Special Agent Mike Grate in the statement. “We want to thank all the agencies involved for all the hard work in bringing this to closure.”
Bourne, 59, is charged with eight counts of transporting archeological resources of more than 100 years old from public lands in Nevada to California in 2010 and 2011, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. These included obsidian biface tools, Steatite pendants, and glass beads allegedly removed from a tribal cremation and burial site.
Further, Bourne is charged with six counts of “unauthorized excavation and removal damage or defacement of archaeological resources in Death Valley National Park, Inyo National Forest, and Sierra National Forest” between 2010 and 2014, the Eastern District of California U.S. Attorney’s Office said. Those included dart points, stone tablets, and a juniper bow stave, also more than 100 years old.
For the last six counts, Bourne allegedly “willfully injured property of the United States by excavating, removing damaging and defacing cultural artifacts on land administered by the United States Forest Service and the National Park Service in the Counties of Mono, Inyo, and Fresno,” the Attorney’s Office said.
He is hardly alone. In 2012, thieves carved out ancient petroglyphs in the Volcanic Tableland in California’s Eastern Sierra Nevadas.
An area where the thieves tried to carve out a petroglyph in California's Eastern Sierra Nevada but ended up leaving it. (Photo: Bureau of Land Management)
Neither is it confined to California. Earlier this month, actors filming the Maze Runner movie series allegedly took Pueblo artifacts from a site in Albuquerque.
Beyond the legalities, Bancroft and Andrews told Indian Country Today Media Network about how taking artifacts harms Native people and their cultures.
“When you remove something from public lands or any land like that that’s sitting there, you’re not just taking an object or something,” Bancroft said. “You’re stealing. You’re stealing from my history, from my culture. You’re affecting my whole being on this planet and where I came from and how I’m connected to it.”
Most people don’t even know it’s illegal to take the items, she said.
“It’s something that I know a lot of people just can’t grasp, because they talk about it like it’s trash,” Bancroft said. “They think they are entitled to just take anything they want. A lot of them around here are just like, ‘How dare they tell me I can’t go out there and pick this stuff up?’ ”
What sets Bourne apart is that he was so taken with his collection—authorities found 30,000 items in his possession—that he carefully documented everything. Bancroft said that although it was his undoing, it could help bring more attention to the issue overall. And serial offenders run rampant, she said.
Most notorious is the case of Norman Starks, who was caught as well but had not kept records; he claimed his grandfather had given him many of the artifacts, and there was no way to prove or disprove that, she said. After a hung jury on one of his cases, he promised to stay out of a certain area. But soon afterward he did it again, 100 yards away, she said.
Bourne’s attorney had said he planned to "have a well known and respected archaeologist" examine the bow "in hopes of determining what organization should receive the item," according to the Los Angeles Times. Bancroft said that that is not even remotely the proper protocol.
“It wasn’t his to take to begin with,” she said. “Who made him the person to decide that it was okay for him to steal all this off of public lands? The tribes try to protect them, and people just take them and act like it’s their decision to where they go, and that’s not the case.”
Bourne could spend up to 98 years in prison if he has to serve the maximum sentence, but his attorney will ask for less than 25. But Bancroft said she hoped it would at the very least fall somewhere in the middle, if only to use his behavior as an example.
“You know, somebody like that, that might be a lesson that it’s serious,” Bancroft said of Bourne. “Because he’s just the type who thinks he can get away with it. People need to take this more seriously. We still have all kinds of looters living in this valley.”
To illustrate, she flipped it.
“If I went down to the cemetery here and dug in one of their grandparents’ graves I’d be in jail,” Bancroft said. “There is no difference here in what these people are doing. I don’t know why they think it’s okay.”