KENNEWICK, Wash. - When Trevor King, 25, went out to rake leaves in the backyard of his Kennewick home last November, the last thing he expected was to unearth a treasure trove of Indian artifacts.
But unearth them he did. In 15 minutes of superficial raking, he uncovered 30 arrowheads. Splinters of bone and pottery lay everywhere. Scraping a little deeper, everything from battle axes and fishing weights to medicine bowls and cordage started to appear. Soon they lay in small heaps all over his backyard.
Afraid he had stumbled on an archaeological site on the property his mother had just given him, he began calling local experts, trying to find out what to do. A Hanford archaeologist showed up, hastily assessed the situation and then reassured him. Instead of a significant site, King had an artifact "dump" in his backyard. King said the man boxed up a few things and left. He never heard from him again.
"It's been a struggle to find the people who wanted it," King says, ruefully. "I called museums in Tri-Cities and they said they didn't want them because, they said, everybody would fight over them and they would just lose them. I didn't really care about that. I just wanted them to go to whoever they belonged to."
Frustrated, King rented a Bobcat and excavated his whole yard down to a depth of 2.5 feet, piling dirt and artifacts high.
The press got hold of the story. People began sneaking into his yard over his back fence at night. Eventually, word of the find got to the right person - Jeff Van Pelt, program manager of the cultural resources protection program for the Umatilla tribes.
Van Pelt examined the site and was stunned with what he found. He wasted no time arranging for a team to come in and start recovering items. King was deeply grateful.
"I explained to him that a lot of archaeologists see these things as just garbage that was thrown away," says Van Pelt. "I explained about our people and how they believe, and that when their stuff was being used and made, everything was made with prayer.
"His eyes were big as saucers when I told him that if he disturbed or had taken away things, that a lot of things can happen to you because it's the only way that those who've been here before have of communicating with us."
In three days, a crew of 15 cultural workers carted out an estimated 200,000 items - most in pieces. Initial research revealed that the majority of the artifacts, some dating back thousands of years, came from a variety of tribes around the Columbia plateau region. A few items appeared to be from the Midwest Plains region.
After cleaning and making a careful assessment of the artifacts, the tribe plans to rebury them.
"A variety of different areas and different tribes are concerned," says Van Pelt. "Not knowing whether they came from burial sites or ceremony sites or whatever, the best thing is to put them back in the ground."
So how did the artifacts get in King's backyard in the first place?
Previous owners of the property, William Catlin and his wife Fae, both deceased, were avid artifact collectors. Catlin's sister, Freida Gross of Richland, recalls that her brother and his wife spent every weekend, from 1942 until Catlin's death in the late 1970s, out collecting at sites all through the Columbia River area.
Potting in the Columbia River area was encouraged by many government and local agencies as recreation back in the early 1940s, when dam and reservoir expansion was being implemented. That policy encouraged a huge amount of potting of sites that went well past the areas of dam flooding.
Fearful of the artifacts being stolen, Catlin was in the habit of sorting through his weekend "take," removing the best pieces and mounting them in formal collections. The remaining artifacts, the "garbage," he buried in his back yard.
Van Pelt and the rest of his department are still not certain what happened to the main collection - a collection for which, Gross says, the Smithsonian Institution once offered her brother $250,000. A large portion of it was originally left to Gross in her brother's estate. But the will was contested by a nephew, who it is believed, holds the majority of artifacts at his home in Eugene, Ore.
This is the largest cache of looted artifacts Van Pelt and his team have ever run across in the tribe's ceded territory.
"Jeff and I work on looted sites a lot," says Julie Longenecker, archaeological assistant to Van Pelt. "And you always wonder where the artifacts go. ... And then you look at a backyard like this and really, it's just such a shame. It's just a throw-away pile. It's just unbelievable how many sites were totally destroyed and how many of the artifacts were taken away from their original place of repose, to just stay in someone's backyard, never to be taken care of again. It bothers me a lot."
Van Pelt says it is a refreshing change, to have someone like King come along, wanting to do the right thing. King himself professes irritation at people like Catlin, taking what doesn't belong to them.
"I don't think anybody should take artifacts that are Indian," says King. "I'm more conscious of Indian archaeology than anything else because there's a lot more involved in it. It's more spiritual than other archaeology."
Umatilla cultural workers will continue to search for additional caches of artifacts said to still be buried in King's yard. They estimate their work will be completed by June - which won't come soon enough for King who says he's eager to have a backyard filled with only grass once again.