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FBI seeks to identify rightful owners in cultural artifacts case

Artifacts on display at Don Miller’s farm in 2014. 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. Photo courtesy FBI.gov.

Four years ago, after an operation in rural Indiana resulted in the largest single recovery of cultural property in FBI history, the Bureau’s Art Crime Team faced an unprecedented challenge: how to identify the rightful owners of more than 7,000 seized artifacts that came from locations spanning the globe.

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.”

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.

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. Photo courtesy FBI.gov.

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.”

Although Miller opened his home over the years to school groups and others wishing to view his collection, he mostly kept hidden hundreds of human remains. A tip to the FBI in 2013 that he had such remains led Carpenter to his door.

A year before his death at the age of 91, Miller agreed to relinquish items he had likely acquired in violation of state and federal law and international treaties. “He cooperated with us throughout the course of the investigation,” Carpenter said, “and it was his wish that we take these objects and return them to their rightful owners, and for the Native American ancestors to be reburied appropriately.”

During a painstaking, six-day recovery operation in 2014, the FBI took possession of 7,000 items.

“It was a very complex operation,” Carpenter recalled. “We are not treating this material as simply evidence. These objects are historically, culturally, and spiritually important, and you have to take that into consideration.” He added, “We are dealing in many cases with objects that are thousands of years old. So imagine a scenario where you take an artifact that was created 4,000 years ago, survived in the ground or a tomb, survived being looted, survived being transported to the United States, has been in this guy’s house for the last 60 years, and the FBI comes along and we pick it up and we stumble and we drop it and we break it. That’s a pretty bad day.”

In many ways, he said, “We had to learn to become a museum.” Until the FBI can identify the rightful owners and repatriate the items—a task made more difficult because Miller did not keep detailed records—“we have to care for and curate these pieces like any museum would.”

To accomplish that, the Bureau partnered with tribal authorities and academic experts early on, consulting with archaeologists, anthropologists, and tribal experts on how to handle and care for the objects and human remains, and how best to locate their rightful owners.

The FBI leased space in a facility near Indianapolis where all the material is housed securely and temperature, humidity, and light levels are controlled. A team of anthropology and museum studies graduate students from Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis (IUPUI ) helps to curate the items and prepare them for shipping when repatriation occurs.

“My students work diligently to make sure that each piece is properly rehoused before it is shipped back to its homeland or to its proper country,” said Holly Cusack-McVeigh, a professor of anthropology and museum studies at IUPUI. “We make sure that nothing is just thrown in a checked bag and tossed into the belly of an airplane. Everything is handled with the utmost care.”

In addition to her background in anthropology and museum studies, Cusack-McVeigh has a deep knowledge of Native American culture and has been an invaluable partner to the FBI regarding the Miller artifacts, particularly the handling and repatriation of Native American human remains.

Cusack-McVeigh took part in the six-day recovery operation in 2014 and recalled that no one on the team was expecting to discover hundreds of remains. “The FBI immediately understood that these are human beings and we can’t treat them like inanimate objects,” she said. “They need to be treated with respect and dignity, and the FBI took that very seriously.”

Pete Coffey, who represents three affiliated North American tribes—the Mandan, the Hidatsa, and the Arikara—said he has “nothing but praise” for the agents who worked on the Miller case. “They made sure that the tribal representatives were included in all aspects of the repatriations,” he said. “They were very forthcoming with regard to procedures and policy.”

The affiliated tribes Coffee represents, known as the MHA Nation, were historically farmers along the Missouri River bottomlands. He has taken part in reburial ceremonies involving repatriated remains from the Miller collection and explained that in his culture, “When you die, your spirit goes back to your ancestral village. If you are not buried with proper ceremony, or if that was interrupted like these burials were, you will never be able to go to back to that village.”

When remains have been dug out of the ground after being laid to rest, he added, “Their spirits are wandering. They cannot rejoin their relatives and family members in the afterlife. That’s my motivation for doing these repatriations,” he said, “to make sure that these spirits are at rest.”

Robert Jones, special agent in charge of the Indianapolis Field Office at the time of the 2014 recovery operation, said he was “bothered immensely” by the fact that Miller had so many Native American remains.

“Even though this case didn’t fit with our traditional type of investigation,” he said, “the FBI was in the best position to be able to right this wrong”—not only regarding the repatriation of human remains but taking responsibility for the stewardship of thousands of culturally significant artifacts Miller had collected illegally. “I felt that if it weren’t for the FBI,” said Jones, currently special agent in charge of the Bureau’s Pittsburgh Field Office, “a vast amount of important historical material might have been lost forever.”

The task of returning the material to its rightful owners was never going to be easy, both Jones and Carpenter acknowledged, because Miller collected so much over such a long period of time and did not keep detailed records, and because the items were taken from all over the globe.

Although Carpenter’s team has had many successes in the past four years, with reburials of human remains and repatriations to numerous countries, he estimates that only about 15 percent of the material has been returned.

“Our ultimate goal in this entire operation has been the respectful repatriation of these objects and these ancestors to the people they were taken from,” he said. “And we want to do that with some measure of dignity.”

The FBI created an invitation-only website that contains information about all the recovered material. The idea was to have the experts “come to us,” Carpenter said. “They could review the collection relevant to their area, identify the pieces for us, tell us where they may belong, and then guide us in contacting the right individuals to begin the repatriation process.”

After the FBI took possession of the material, Carpenter’s team contacted all the federally recognized Native American tribes, which number nearly 600. Working through the United Nations, the team also notified the member nations about the recovered artifacts and the FBI’s website for viewing them. Nations nominated experts who contacted the FBI by sending an email to artifacts@fbi.gov.

“We would give them access to the website, which is not open to the public,” Carpenter said. “The intent was for them to then go online, review the material, and make claims for any objects they felt were their cultural patrimony. The same process held for Native American tribes.”

To date, he said, “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.”

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.”

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.

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Where Congress falls short … and where it doesn’t


By Lee H. Hamilton


At a public gathering the other day, someone asked me how I’d sum up my views on Congress. It was a good question, because it forced me to step back from worrying about the current politics of Capitol Hill and take a longer view.

Congress, I said, does some things fairly well. Its members for the most part are people of integrity who want to serve their constituents and the country. They also strive to reflect their constituents’ views, though they tend to under-appreciate voters’ pragmatism and over-estimate their ideological purity. Still, they’re politicians: their success rests on being accessible to their constituents, understanding what they want, and aligning themselves with that interest.

Yet for all the attractive individual qualities that members of Congress display, their institutional performance falls short. They argue endlessly, pander to contributors and powerful interests, posture both in the media and in countless public meetings, and in the end it amounts to very little. They discuss and debate a lot of problems, but don’t produce effective results.

This may be because many members of our national legislature have a constricted view of what it means to be a legislator. They’re satisfied with making a political statement by giving a speech, casting a vote, or getting a bill through the chamber they serve in, rather than writing legislation that will make it through both houses of Congress, get signed by the President, and become law. The days appear to be over when members of Congress strove to be masters of their subject matter and legislators in fact as well as in name.

Perhaps because they’re forced to spend so much time raising money and listening to well-heeled people and groups, they also seem to have trouble seeing current affairs from the perspective of ordinary people. They fall captive to the politics of any given issue, rather than thinking about the much harder question of how you govern a country with all its residents in mind. They don’t see the necessity, in a divided Congress and a divided country, of negotiation and compromise.

Plenty of forces are responsible for this state of affairs, from the outsized role of money in the political process to today’s hyper-partisanship to TV-driven sound-bite debates. But in the end, it’s still a source of great frustration to the American people, me included, that well-meaning, talented individuals cannot make the institution work better.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.


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The Roots of Congress’s Unpopularity

By Lee Hamilton, The Center on Congress at Indiana University

I suppose it’s possible that Congress could enjoy even less popularity than it does at the moment, but it’s difficult to imagine. Recent public opinion polls show it plumbing depths that have rarely been seen before.
Certainly that’s true of a survey just conducted by the Center on Congress at Indiana University, which I direct. Every year, we measure national public opinion about Congress in an effort to gauge how relevant it is to Americans’ lives and whether they feel it’s living up to the Framers’ expectation that it serve as “the people’s branch” of the federal government. This year, a jaw-dropping 84 percent of those we surveyed said they disapprove of the job Congress is doing.
If this were all the survey had found, it would be bad enough. But Americans consistently grade Congress at a D or worse on such fundamental measures as whether it is dealing with key issues facing the country, keeping excessive partisanship in check, holding its members to high ethical standards, and controlling the influence of special interests.
Even worse, when asked, “What do you think is the main thing that influences what members of Congress do in office,” an abysmal 84 percent believe that either “personal interest” or “special interests” drive congressional action. Very few people, in other words, believe that members of Congress have the best interests of the country, or even of their constituents, at heart.
This may be why proposals like the “Congressional Reform Act of 2011,” a set of suggestions for stripping members of Congress of alleged perquisites, have enjoyed such popularity in online forums. Parts of the proposal are based on misleading or outdated information — contrary to the text circulating on the Web, members of Congress do pay Social Security taxes, for instance; and their pensions are generous but not outlandish, averaging $36,732 a year for those who pay into the federal retirement fund that has existed since 1984.
Nonetheless, the perception that members enjoy benefits unavailable to ordinary Americans is widespread, and occasionally right. For instance, while members of Congress participate in a health-insurance program similar to other federal employees mainly for their families, they also have free or very modest cost access to care in the Capitol, including annual physical exams, and to superb outpatient care and other services at military hospitals like Bethesda Naval Hospital.
So congressional reform initiatives that take aim at legitimate issues ought to have a place at the table; especially in tough times, it’s important for Congress not to appear to be getting special breaks at the taxpayer’s expense.
Still, in the end these fixes are not the most important issue.
The more fundamental questions have to do with how Congress behaves. Ordinary citizens believe that members of Congress pay close attention to special interests because, in fact, they do. There’s a widespread belief that Capitol Hill protects its own when it comes to ethical transgressions because there has been far too great a reluctance to pursue misbehavior aggressively.
People are tired of partisan gamesmanship because, quite simply, there’s been too much of it. Voters feel ignored—or at least unheard—because for all the efforts members of Congress put into communicating with their constituents, so much of their time is spent with donors, party activists, and like-minded supporters that the multitude of their constituents’ concerns can go unappreciated, and their legislative duties are neglected.
There are remedies for all of these issues, from beefing up ethics enforcement, to strengthening lobby limits and disclosure laws, to recognizing that partisanship and the narrow political bases that feed it have created a true crisis of confidence in our representative system. Congress has it within its own power to reverse its dangerous fall in the public’s estimation.
But the American people, too, have a role to play. Looking at the shifts in congressional standing over a period of decades, a trio of political scientists — the late Robert Durr of Washington University, John Gilmour of William & Mary, and Christina Wolbrecht of Notre Dame—came to a startling conclusion a number of years ago: that Congress often suffers for doing what it’s supposed to do. “As the representatives of a diverse and heterogeneous country, members seldom find themselves in agreement,” they wrote. “To the public, then, the very activities which characterize Congress and the legislative process—deliberation, debate, and decision making—cause it to appear quarrelsome, unproductive, and controversial, and thus diminish it in the public eye.”
The poll findings by the Center on Congress and others clearly ought to alarm congressional leaders and encourage them to look deeply at their institution’s behavior. But they also should serve as a spur to ordinary citizens not to write Congress off, but to seek to understand it better, take aim at the fundamental problems, and avoid deriding Congress for doing what it was set up to do: debate, deliberate, and make decisions for a diverse and often contentious nation.
Drawing upon his 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, Lee Hamilton writes a bi-weekly column on Congress — sometimes explaining why Congress works the way it does or explaining its impact, other times suggesting ways Congress could be improved or reformed.

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