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Failing Health Hasn’t Stopped a California Relic Hunter

Spirits may be taking revenge on alleged grave robber Norman Starks; he could soon be facing trial in federal court for digging for Native artifacts.

Norman Stark’s health has not been good; not long ago he got a kidney transplant after years of dialysis. Some Native folks around Lone Pine, California think he has only his own his blasphemous ways to blame. Indeed the spirits may be taking their final revenge on the alleged grave robber; he could soon be facing trial in federal court for digging for Native artifacts, including funerary items, on federal lands.

Tribal and federal authorities note that his fragile health has not deterred him from pursuing his obsessive hobby. In June, 53 federal authorities arrived on his property near Lone Pine seizing artifacts they maintain were illegally taken from federal lands.

Starks, 76, is described as a rugged anti-hero by the Los Angeles Times in a July 2014 article detailing how his artifact collecting has resulted in numerous run-ins with local and federal authorities.

Starks is unrepentant about the cultural, spiritual or archaeological damage his activities might work and is adamant about his right to continue. He insists that 90 percent of his collection predates the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and is therefore unaffected by the law. Despite first hand accounts by tribal and federal authorities who have witnessed his grave looting on federal lands, he dismisses the allegations as “lies” and part of a conspiracy to thwart his lawsuit against the Los Angeles Department of Water (DWP). Starks, who is retired from the DWP, claims that tribes are conspiring with the agency to seize control of his water rights noted the Times story.

During his visit to Stark’s home in July, LA Times reporter Louis Sahagun observed that Starks porch and yard were “strewn with hundreds of prehistoric cutting tools, granite bowls, beads, rock etchings, arrowheads and grinding stones.” According to Sahagun, Starks maintains that his grandfather collected the large stone items on his front porch.

“Disturbing our graves is the worst thing you could do to us,” notes Kathy Jefferson Bancroft, tribal historic preservation officer for the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone reservation.

The Lone Pine reservation is located on the eastern side of the Sierra mountain range in the same region as Death Valley. Arid and fragile, the region receives less than 5 inches of rain per year. The area is now experiencing a drought, which has uncovered even more artifacts, according to Bancroft.

RELATED: Federal Laws Clash Over California Massacre Site

In an interesting twist as reported by Indian Country Today Media Network in 2013, mitigation efforts by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to control dust in Owens Lake have further uncovered and destroyed Native artifacts.

Starks first attracted the attention of law enforcement in 2003 when federal agents observed him digging around Native graves. He was charged under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act but the case was not successful. In 2009, Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Greg Haverstock and BLM engineer Jeff Yanez saw Stark digging in a known prehistoric mortuary site with a golf club, according to a 2011 story in The Inyo Register.

The state of California charged him with looting artifacts from DWP land. In the 2011 court decision, Stark accepted a plea agreement to stay away from the 700-acre area of Keeler Dunes for life. The LA Times reports the area is rich with Native artifacts.

According to federal and tribal authorities, however, the agreement has not stopped Starks collecting activities. Stark told the LA Times that he is searching for coins and contains his wanderings to private land.

Bancroft disagrees with Starks claims.

“We see him all over the place and we have been documenting these sightings,” Bancroft said.

She noted that Starks leaves an area when he sees Native people approaching.

“He tells people that the tribes never cared about these artifacts, that we threw them away,” she said.

“When we find these things, we rebury them. They belong to someone else and are blessed with death. They are sacred; that’s how we were raised to think of these items,” she said.

Federal authorities are not commenting on the status of the case but if it comes to trial, it will take place in Fresno, a long drive from Lone Pine.

“We do care about these things. Believe me we are going to be at that trial in Fresno and make our presence known. Hopefully something really happens this time,” Bancroft said.

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