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Posted 7/19/2013

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By Ronnie Schelby
Albuquerque District, Public Affairs

GALLUP, N.M. -- On July 9, the Corps of Engineers repatriated a large cache of sacred artifacts to the Navajo Nation. 

This is the first time in the history of the Omaha District, with some assistance from the Albuquerque District, that artifacts have been returned to any tribal nation in accordance with the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA). The artifacts were looted from Corps of Engineers-managed land and Navajo tribal lands. A total of 710 artifacts were recovered from lands managed both by the Corps of Engineers and the Navajo Nation. Out of these, 425 were determined to be the property of the Navajo Nation, and were returned.

The looter, Donald B. Yellow, was working for Indian Health Service in Chinle, Ariz., when he stole the sacred artifacts. According to Ronald Maldonado, supervisory archaeologist for the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department, many of the artifacts, including burial items, were looted from the Chuska Mountains, a mountain range located within the Navajo Nation just north of Gallup, N.M. Yellow continued looting along the Missouri River Basin as he moved north.

"When Yellow relocated to the Midwest, he took all of the artifacts with him," Maldonado said.

"We still do not know how Yellow was able to move all of these items," said Megan Maier, field archaeologist, Omaha district.

The looted artifacts were discovered in central South Dakota, when Yellow was trying to sell them on E-Bay.

Yellow went to trial in South Dakota, pled guilty to a misdemeanor in violation of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) and was sentenced October 11, 2011. He was fined $618.00. The judge also ordered all of the southwestern/Navajo artifacts be returned to the Navajo Nation and ordered Yellow to pay a restitution fee of $4382.00 to return them. However, Yellow received no jail time or probation for this violation.

According to Public Law 96-95, the purpose of ARPA, created in 1979, is "to secure, for the present and future benefit of the American people, the protection of archaeological resources and sites which are on public lands and Indian lands, and to foster increased cooperation and exchange of information between governmental authorities, the professional archaeological community, and private individuals (Sec. 2(4)(b)). Statute (16 U.S.C. 470aa-470mm)."

Members of the Corps of Engineers, Omaha District, and the Albuquerque District, met with Maldonado at the airport in Gallup, N.M. There, Maldonado accepted the items on behalf of the Navajo Nation.

"These artifacts are sacred to the Navajo people and we are grateful to have them returned to their home," said Maldonado. "Some of these artifacts were stolen from our peoples' graves and burial sites," he said.

Julie Price, cultural resources project manager, Omaha District, noted that the artifacts were found, and Yellow prosecuted, thanks to the dedicated efforts of Mr. Brad Merrill, a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Pierre, South Dakota.

"The Corps has a Scope of Work (SOW) Agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," she said. "This is because of the different types of delegation authorities given to both agencies. The Corps is authorized to enforce the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (ARPA); however the Corps does not have enforcement authority to prosecute offenders of ARPA, but FWS does."

Since non-Navajo artifacts were found on Corps lands, and the Corps does not have the authority to detain, arrest and prosecute these offenders, the FWS does. Thanks to this excellent partnership with between these two agencies, Yellow was caught, tried and found guilty. The Omaha District is currently working with the courts to return the non-Navajo artifacts to their tribal homes.

"It is very rewarding to be a part of returning these artifacts to the rightful owners, said Maier. "Now these items are back where they should be. They do not belong in South Dakota," she said. "Now they are back home in the southwest." 

"The Navajo Nation is one of South Pacific Division's critical strategic partners," said Ron Kneebone, tribal liaison, Albuquerque District. "Cooperation, such as this repatriation, helps strengthen our relationship into the future. All credit for the success of this effort is due to Omaha District's dedicated cultural resources staff. Working cooperatively with our sister District has been a great experience and provides an excellent example of Corps' teamwork," he said.