Return artifacts to tribes, Echo Hawk says at history conference

By Paul Foy
Salt Lake City, Utah (AP) 10-09

Tribes should be given the first opportunity to reclaim thousands of ancient Southwest artifacts being seized by the government in its sweeping prosecution of theft and trafficking, the federal appointee in charge of Indian affairs told The Associated Press.

Tribal leaders will have something to say to the government on this issue, said Larry Echo Hawk, assistant Interior secretary for Indian Affairs.

“The tribes should get first priority,” said. “Native people in their hearts are going to feel a connection.”

Echo Hawk, a law professor on leave from Utah’s Brigham Young University, praised his former student – U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman – for taking a tough stance on looting across tribal and federal lands after decades of government indifference.

The number of defendants in the case has grown to 26 in Utah, New Mexico and Colorado. More indictments are expected out of Arizona.

With the first sentencing Sept 17 of a major defendant, the government became owner of more than 800 artifacts confiscated from a Blanding, Utah, family. Another five moving vans worth of artifacts have been surrendered by a Colorado antiquities dealer.

Echo Hawk acknowledged repatriating artifacts under federal laws will be arduous. It isn’t always clear which modern tribe can claim ownership of an ancient relic. Sacred and burial objects are supposed to go back to their rightful culture, while the government can keep other artifacts stolen from public lands.


Echo Hawk said he didn’t want to see a wholesale transfer of artifacts squirreled away in public museums. Emily Palus, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s national curator in Washington, D.C., has said it could take years to sort through and properly dispose of the relics.

They range from infant cradle boards to turquoise necklaces, pottery and even human remains – adult molars and infant teeth.

Investigators shared photographs of the seized items with the director of the bureaus of Indian Affairs and Indian Education.

“I looked at those things and didn’t want to see them,” Echo Hawk said. “Many of them would be sacred, part of a burial, private – I didn’t want to look at them. People were trading them, making profits from them, like commodities in the marketplace.”

Echo Hawk, 61, a member of the Great Plains’ Pawnee tribe, took over an agency in May that was marked by a lack of leadership during the Bush administration. It changed directors six times in eight years, with the post left vacant for two of those years.

“The tribes have enormous expectations with the Obama administration,” said Echo Hawk, who has been traveling widely to get a firsthand assessment of problems in Indian Country – the agency is a trustee for 66 million acres of land. “They’re expecting us to deliver.”

The post is tough under the best of circumstances. Echo Hawk, of Orem, Utah – he keeps an apartment in Arlington, Va. – said he was dealing with issues like competing licenses for gaming that often pit tribe against another.

For the past dozen years, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has been embroiled in a lawsuit over Indian trust land. The long-running suit claims the Indians were swindled out of billions of dollars in oil, gas, grazing, timber and other royalties overseen by the Interior Department since 1887.

Echo Hawk was in Salt Lake City to deliver a keynote speech for the 57th annual Utah State History Conference.

He delivered a characteristically moving speech that covered the sweep of U.S.-Indian relations. Echo Hawk, who carries a heavy burden of injustice, emphasized atrocities committed against American Indians in early U.S. history. By the end he was fighting tears, and he received a standing ovation from the crowd at Salt Lake City’s library.

For a second time in weeks at a Utah conference, Echo Hawk detailed his own difficult decision to accept the job and become a “face” for a federal government with a sordid history of mistreating Indians. He finally reconciled his hesitation by vowing to be an “agent for change” instead of a mere caretaker.

For Echo Hawk, the challenge is trying to solve two centuries of tragedy and injustice in the 39 months he’ll have as an appointee in Obama’s first term in office.

“How do you eat an elephant? You eat it one bite at a time,” Echo Hawk said. “How do you reverse 200 years of struggles? It’s not going to be easy.