Artifacts looted from historic sites between Wales and Shishmaref
Property between Shishmaref and Wales designated by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act as a cemetery or historic site was looted this summer. The land belongs to the Bering Strait Native Corporation, which is currently working with federal agencies to determine the extent of the damage on its lands and to formulate methods for enforcement of statutes prohibiting such activity.
Disturbances on historic sites are far from uncommon. BSNC Vice President of Resources and External Affairs Matt Ganley said that each summer BSNC receives many calls about looting. Instances of looting have risen “exponentially” since 2010. “Unfortunately, within the past seven years, the pace of destruction has accelerated, with dozens of sites along the coast from Cape Wooley to Cape Espenberg being dug up,” Ganley wrote.
Affected lands include Native Allotments, National Park Land, Bureau of Land Management lands, and village and regional corporation properties. Several of these entities launched a program to fly over and document sites, which BSNC continues to do annually in heavily affected areas.
Ganley believes the increase in looting activity on federal lands and Native allotments since 2010 can be attributed in part to a lack of enforcement. Erosion caused by climate change compounds the problem.
Thawing permafrost and erosion caused by rising sea levels naturally uncover previously buried artifacts around Alaska. While this provides archeologists with the opportunity to learn about an area’s past, it also makes it easier for people to remove the newly visible items.
Since this particular site is on the Bering Sea coast, it is very vulnerable to erosion. However, Ganley notes that, while disappearing shorelines may make it easier to find sites, “(looters) are quite adept at locating and destroying cultural resources without the help of Mother Nature.”
In an article on looting in its latest newsletter, BSNC threatens to “bring the force of law to bear…on those responsible for these acts of destruction and theft.”
This is no easy task, however. Penalties for looting vary depending on who owns the land. Although federal land is protected under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, there are not ARPA investigation or prosecution experts in Alaska, “nor do the (federal) agencies seem to have an appetite for pursuing enforcement and prosecution,” wrote Ganley.
Once a site has been tampered with, it is difficult to determine what was removed. Ganley said this makes the matter harder to litigate. Native corporations have few options other than prosecution for theft or enforcement of trespass laws, neither of which are a match for the extent of the crime. “Looting is essentially an unsustainable assault on a non-renewable cultural resource,” Ganley stated.
People are tempted to take artifacts because they are monetarily valuable. However, this fails to take into account their cultural and historic value. “[I]t shows a blatant disrespect for our ancestors and the places where they lived, died and were buried,” reads the BSNC’s newsletter.
Moreover, tampering with a historic site causes it to lose some of its historic value, as the site is no longer in its original state.
Ganley gave the example of Point Spencer, which has experienced “rampant” looting on nine sites since 2010. There is a good amount of evidence, including photographic, pointing toward certain individuals. “Every year more damage is done and no citations given or arrests made for activities that are clearly illegal,” he said. The destruction has included digging up and looting two graves at Port Clarence.
Ganley said that within the past few weeks, BSNC received a report that graves dating back to the 1930s were destroyed between Shishmaref and Wales. Referencing information received by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and BSNC, he believes it is likely that these people are also responsible for digging up Native allotments. “The desecration of a grave is, by any standards, a heinous act.”
George Olanna Sr., who lives in Shishmaref, is a victim of artifact looting. His Native allotment, where the graves of several of his family members are located, was dug up by people looking for artifacts. He said that a polar bear had been chewing on the exposed bones.
Olanna is very concerned by the looting, and its effect on Native culture. “It’s our land…we need to do something to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he stated. Olanna wants to raise awareness of the issue sooner rather than later to make sure people do not forget about the incident. He said he posted “no trespassing” signs, but that the perpetrators “don’t care…they have no respect for our culture, and we got to preserve our culture.”