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Federal agencies work to protect artifacts
JUNE 29, 2000

Internet users who have been patrolling online auction sites for Native American artifacts have key allies in their quest to protect the cultural heritage of tribes throughout the country.

Since at least 1998, the National Parks Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have been investigating and preventing the sale of items like the one recently offered on the Yahoo! Auction site.

Yahoo! company officials quickly removed the item, the remains of a young child, after quick acting and concerned Internet users alerted them to the auction.

Pat Mercado-Allinger is the archaeologist for the State of Texas, where the remains were reported to have been recovered. She commended the company's efforts.

"The sale was definitely disturbing," said Mercado-Allinger. "But at least the company removed it from site."

As the state's top archaeologist, Mercado-Allinger says Texas does not have laws specifically protecting unmarked Indian graves, although efforts have been made in the past to introduce such legislation. But given the amount of evidence presented by the item's seller, she believes investigation and potential prosecution of the seller would be easier than other cases.

Such investigation often ends up in the hands of three key federal agencies. Phil Young, of the National Park Service in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has worked with the BIA and the FBI to retrieve and begin the repatriation process for items that have been offered on Internet sites.

The trafficking and sale of human remains is a federal offense. Through the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990, tribes can repatriate the remains of their ancestors and other cultural patrimony.

In 1999, Young and the two agencies worked with the auction site eBay involving the sale of a Native American skull. They were alerted to the item by Native web surfers, some of whom expressed outrage at the offering.

"eBay is very forthcoming with us," said Young. "Every time we have asked, they have provided us with the name, address, and other information they have on the seller."

Young also credits eBay with hiring a former US Attorney whose unit prosecuted the first NAGPRA case in the country.

"The company realizes that 99% of trade is legal," said Young. "They wanted to get rid of the 1%--It's just good business."

Related Stories:
Yahoo! removes auction (The Talking Circle 6/22)
Culture for Sale: Sitting Bull (The Talking Circle 6/20)
Culture for Sale (The Talking Circle 5/23)
Fighting forgeries in Indian Country (Arts and Entertainment 5/18)