FBI seeking to repatriate thousands of Native artifacts ‘collected’ by Christian missionary

Vincent Schilling

Recovery of Native cultural artifacts is the largest single discovery of cultural property in FBI history. Christian missionary had used a skull as a fruit bowl and adorned skeletons

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s website, an official operation by the FBI—which led to the discovery of over 7,000 seized artifacts— has resulted in the FBI reaching out to the 573 federally-recognized Native American tribes in the United States in an attempt to find the proper home and legal repatriation of thousands of culturally-significant items.

The discovery has been the subject of ongoing investigations for years in which a 91-year-old Christian missionary by the name of Donald C. Miller, who lived in Indiana, had run an amateur museum of sorts out of his farmhouse.

The FBI at the Waldron, Indiana farmhouse. (FBI Photo)

According to the FBI and several news reports, tens of thousands of cultural artifacts in varying methods of display—from being encased in jars, to sitting behind glass display cases—and now, according to the APTN, as actual skeletons adorned with breastplates and/or bone choker necklaces or as a saw-carved skull into a fruit bowl on a table—set the stage for his museum.

The FBI's Art Crime Team is trying to identify the rightful owners of more than 7,000 artifacts seized in Indiana that came from locations spanning the globe. (Courtesy FBI)

The initial discovery of the artifacts occurred in 2014. According to MSN, a former local reporter Liz Dykes said that Miller was a former engineer, World War II veteran and Christian missionary who had done work in Haiti and was known for his huge collection of artifacts from all over the world.

"He was very beloved. He was very charismatic," said Dykes to MSN. "The entire house is a museum. There are things everywhere … It was just mind-blowing."

According to the FBI’s site on the recovery, the agency hopes to get the assistance from tribes in identifying where the artifacts need to be returned. The FBI stated:

The efforts to identify and repatriate the cultural property—which included approximately 500 sets of human remains looted largely from Native American burial grounds—is ongoing, and the FBI is now publicizing the case, along with an invitation-only website detailing the items, in the hopes of gaining further assistance from governments around the world and from Native American tribes.

“There is no single expert that can tell us everything we need to know about all of this material,” said Special Agent Tim Carpenter, who oversees the FBI’s art theft program and who led the 2014 recovery effort in Indiana. “This case requires the FBI to go out and seek assistance from many experts in the field.”

Museum studies graduate students from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) help care for the recovered artifacts in a facility near Indianapolis where all the recovered artifacts are housed securely and temperature, humidity, and light levels are controlled. Students and highly trained IUPUI staff also help prepare the artifacts for shipping when repatriation occurs. (Courtesy FBI)

The seized artifacts and human remains were part of a much larger collection amassed by Don Miller, a renowned scientist who helped build the first atomic bomb and a globetrotting amateur archaeologist whose passion for collecting sometimes crossed the line into illegality and outright looting.

For more than seven decades, Miller unearthed cultural artifacts from North America, South America, Asia, the Caribbean, and in Indo-Pacific regions such as Papua New Guinea. A Ming Dynasty vase or intricate Italian mosaic might be on display in his home alongside Civil War and Revolutionary War items.

“Don would collect pretty much anything,” Carpenter said. “He collected from just about every corner of the globe.” Areas of his Waldron, Indiana, farmhouse where he displayed many of the approximately 42,000 items in his collection were stacked “floor to ceiling” with material, Carpenter said. “But his passion, I think, was Native American cultural goods.”

The FBI has released a video of the announcement as well. The entire video and transcript as released by the FBI are at the bottom of this article.

Tribal officials respond

According to a recent report by APTN News, the FBI is working with several tribal officials and archeology experts to include Pete Coffey, a Tribal Historic compliance officer in North Dakota, and Holly Cusack-McVeigh, an associate professor of anthropology and museum studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

The reports from Coffey and Cusack-McVeigh to the APTN are not favorable.

Coffey told APTN, “The guy’s house was literally a museum. He had these huge display cases and fully articulated skeletons laying in these display cases in his living room … He then dressed these skeletons in the grave goods that he had robbed. These skeletons had bone chokers on, breastplates and armbands that he had stolen from the graves.”

“He took a skull, and cut the crown of that skull off and he had it on his coffee table as a fruit bowl and he had fruit in that skull,” said Coffey.

“So far there were a dozen ancestors who went back home to their people and were repatriated … This repatriation included representatives from many of the Sioux Tribe of South Dakota and three affiliated tribes of North Dakota,” said Cusack-McVeigh.

FBI Seeking Owners in Cultural Artifacts Case

The FBI has reached out to the federally recognized tribes in the United States. There are not claims that artifacts are First Nations’ artifacts.

Special Agent Carpenter says on the FBI site, to date, “we have not reached as large an audience as I’d hoped, and we have not been as successful as we'd like to be in identifying the pieces and getting the claims to come forward.”

The site continues:

To renew interest in the artifacts, the FBI has decided to publicize the case, providing information for the first time about the Miller investigation and the recovery and repatriation efforts. “We have a lot of work left to do,” Carpenter said, “and we can't do that work until the experts come forward and help us identify these pieces and guide us on where they need to go.”

If you want to identify/make claim to artifacts:

The FBI is asking official representatives of Native American tribes and foreign governments that would like to determine whether they have a claim to any of the recovered artifacts to contact the Bureau’s art theft program and submit a request via artifacts@fbi.gov.

Video - FBI Seeking Owners in Cultural Artifacts Case

Video Transcript

H.E. Francisco Santos, Colombian Ambassador to the U.S.: Thank you very, very much for all the work that you have done. And for recovering these archaeological pieces that are part of our heritage, part of our history, part of what we are as Colombians.

Narrator: The recent return of nearly 40 recovered Colombian artifacts was a momentous occasion for the South American country and the FBI.

The items are part of Colombia’s cultural heritage and are therefore considered priceless.

The event on October 10 (2018) marked a success for the FBI’s Art Crime Team, which recovered the items in 2014.

The returned antiquities are just a tiny fraction of a huge cache of artifacts from around the world the FBI discovered on an Indiana farm.

They represent the largest collection of art and cultural property ever recovered by the FBI in the course of an investigation.

A tip in 2013 led the FBI to the town of Waldron, Indiana. And to the farm of Don Miller.

In his house, they found everything from Ming vases to Native American arrowheads to human remains.

Miller, who died in 2015 at the age of 91, collected more than 42,000 artifacts over a period of about 60 years.

Miller was known by many for his archaeological exploits. But his passion as a collector at some point crossed the line into illegal activity.

In 2015, he signed over about 7,000 items to the FBI, which has undertaken a painstaking process to determine their provenance and return them to their rightful owners.

Tim Carpenter, FBI Special Agent: Don ultimately waived his title and claim to any of those pieces. It was his desire, again, that we repatriate and return these things to where they belonged. So that started this years-long process for us.

Narrator: The hub of the FBI’s effort is a nondescript warehouse outside Indianapolis. This is where the FBI has carefully stored and catalogued the artifacts and meticulously prepares them for shipping when they have been claimed.

Because Miller’s collection included a significant number of human remains—many of Native American origin—extensive care has gone into identifying and respectfully returning them, along with the items they were buried with.

Carpenter: It’s a very long and painstaking process. We have to do osteological examination of those human remains, and then we have to do a lot of tribal consultation. We have to work with the tribes and the indigenous groups and get their input and seek their assistance on identifying these remains and the ethnological pieces that go with them.

Narrator: Assisting the FBI are experts in archeology and cultural anthropology, who study the items to determine their origins and carefully prepare them for storage or transport. They treat the warehouse and its contents like a museum.

Carpenter: We have to climate control that warehouse. We have to control the humidity, the temperature. And we have a team of grad students that are all museum studies grad students, and they come to us and we give them some on-the-job experience and some on-the-job training, and they curate this collection for us, just like a museum would.

Narrator: Holly Cusack-McVeigh, an associate professor of anthropology and museum studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, illustrates how the FBI relies on partners—from tribal groups to academia. From the earliest days of the case, the collections and curator scholar has provided the Art Crime Team with expertise and guidance. Now four years on, she is the collection's chief steward, along with her team of students.

Cusack-McVeigh: We have a range of objects from different time periods and different cultural traditions. The objects themselves—every material type that you can imagine. And so along with that, on the museum collections care side, there's a lot that goes into making sure that these objects are cared for properly until they do go home.

Narrator: The FBI has set up an invitation-only website containing images and descriptions of the artifacts to help in the repatriation process. Its use is limited to parties with credible claims, since many items may have cultural sensitivities.

Carpenter: Our ultimate goal in this entire operation has been the respectful repatriation of these objects and these ancestors back to the people that they were taken from. We want to do that with some measure of dignity.

Narrator: The recent repatriation of the Colombian artifacts is a model example of how the process is working.

Years of detective work, archeological research, and anthropological sleuthing helped return some 40 cultural treasures to their rightful home in Colombia.

The FBI is hoping for similar success for nearly 7,000 remaining artifacts.

Cusack-McVeigh: There’s still a lot of Native American material that we have yet to repatriate, and we are waiting for the tribes to look at that material and tell us that this is their material and to make a proper claim.

Carpenter: We are four years deep into this investigation. Our ultimate aim is to repatriate every single one of these pieces, at least the ones that we can determine were obtained improperly or illegally. We want to return all of them to their rightful homes. But we need the public’s help and we need academia’s help, and we need the help of our foreign partners to do that.

Text Slide: Sovereign nations and Native American tribes wishing to determine if they have a claim to recovered artifacts should contact the FBI and submit a request at artifacts@fbi.gov.

If you want to identify/make claim to artifacts:

The FBI is asking official representatives of Native American tribes and foreign governments that would like to determine whether they have a claim to any of the recovered artifacts to contact the Bureau’s art theft program and submit a request via artifacts@fbi.gov. 

For more information on this case, visit the FBI's Art Crime webpage.

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Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter - @VinceSchilling

Email - vschilling@indiancountrytoday.com

Comments (4)
No. 1-4
Little Talking- Bear
Little Talking- Bear

I believe it should be returned. It doesn't have a thing to do with Christianity. Except they took those things that didn't belong to them. Give it back. It's the right thing to do.


Christian missionary, no just a thief.

David Hollenshead
David Hollenshead

Donald C. Miller's bones should be kept in a glass case in the Nation he stole the most from, ideally with his skull in the nation he stole the 2nd most from. A very non-christian burial for a godless man...


It's interesting that they said that this man 'collected' those items instead of saying that these items were STOLEN! I don't care how nice and how charismatic he was, or that he kept these items in display cases, dude had a human skull with fruit in it for his enjoyment! He had no respect for the dead or Native Culture anywhere..