Indiana Jones, meth addict

The strange link between looting Indian artifacts and methamphetamine users.
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A projectile point and a methamphetamine molecule.

The strange link between looting Indian artifacts and methamphetamine users.

The artifact landscape has changed. Hunting for arrowheads, Indian tools, and old-time treasures is not only politically incorrect but often illegal. Time was when a fairly casual stroll along a river or on a beach or through the forest could produce all kinds of finds which people didn't think twice about pocketing. Back in the late 1980s, I visited the home of an old-timer on Alki Point, and on one wall of his cabin was a museum-quality display of Clovis spear points.

I envied the days of my father, who seemed to have a knack for running across exciting stuff when he was young, from bones to old military buttons. When he worked at a logging camp on the Olympic Peninsula in the 1930s, two loggers came across a musket ball buried deep in a tree they were felling. My father, a college boy, asked to see it and the tree where they found it. By counting the rings, he estimated it had been fired in the late 1700s — right around the time the Spanish established Washington's first European settlement, Nunez Genoa, in nearby Neah Bay. My dad tried to buy it, but he only convinced the men that it was something valuable. They apparently lost or traded it later during a wild weekend of drinking and whoring, and a piece of Northwest history was lost.

Such relics are not necessarily uncommon. In the old Northwest you could literally reach out and touch history wherever you went. Everyone could be an Indiana Jones. But now, relic hunting is pretty much a no-no. It ruins potentially important archaeological evidence. Findings on public lands are considered theft and may violate various laws designed to protect ecosystems and Native American rights. Sometimes, it may be downright grave robbing.

Many people are simply unaware of the laws. Others are fully aware, but artifact looting is their business. There's an active, legal trade in artifacts, but there is also a large illegal trade that is difficult to police. According to some law enforcement folks, one of the things that's been driving the thefts in recent years is methamphetamine.

Meth has been an all-purpose scourge, blamed for ruining lives, dental hygiene, and spreading crime and toxic chemicals on our wild lands. Its popularity in rural areas around the country and on reservations has made it a problem on public tracts and tribal lands where there is plenty of room for mischief, from hidden drug labs to illegal timber cutting. But some in law enforcement have seen a particular connection between meth users and the theft of Indian and prehistoric artifacts.

In Oregon, a federal operation called Operation Bring 'Em Back, targeting the illegal traffic in artifacts, has led to recovery of literally "hundreds of thousands" of Indian artifacts. According to a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) report:

In 2006, 11 suspects pleaded guilty to a variety of Federal charges, including conspiracy, violations of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, and violations of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). This investigation resulted in the first criminal conviction of NAGPRA in the Pacific Northwest. In addition, several other significant criminal activities were uncovered, including two methamphetamine labs, an indoor marijuana growing operation, and multiple wildlife poaching cases.

The meth-artifact connection has also been noted by the BLM as a more general phenomenon on lands it manages around the country:

[T]he BLM'ꀙs law enforcement Agents and Rangers continued to investigate and prosecute a wide range of cases, including the illegal digging on and theft of artifacts from public lands. In many of the cases involving the theft of artifacts, the possession or the manufacturing of methamphetamine continued to be associated with arrested suspects.

There are a number of reasons why meth and artifacts might be linked. One is proximity: Rural areas are where you tend to find meth labs and arrowheads. Another is that some see looting as easy pickins, less risky than knocking over a liquor store. It's also lucrative: note the scale — "hundreds of thousands" — of artifacts. Finding a Native American grave can be like breaking into a bank vault. According to USA Today:

Martin McAllister, a former Forest Service archaeologist whose Missoula, Mont., company Archaeological Resource Investigations trains and consults with federal law enforcement officials, says the theft of artifacts from national parks and other federal land is "a huge, huge crime problem 'ꀔ a multimillion-dollar-a-year industry. "In the Southwest, McAllister says, officials are finding more looting by methamphetamine addicts. "A Native American pot is money. It's cash in your hand," he says.

Some people estimate the global illegal art and antiquities trade at $5 billion to $6 billion dollars per year, ranking it right behind arms dealing and drug smuggling.

Even small-time criminals find it worthwhile to be informed and systematic. In a case involving the Umatilla tribe along the Columbia River, looters used hoses to wash away river bank. Others sifted soil through screens. Both techniques are like methods used by early gold miners, and the latter is used by legit archaeologists. According to Lt. Brian White of the Benton County, Wash., sheriff's office, in one investigation involving two suspects in 1999 who were digging near an old tribal village site, 13,000 artifacts were recovered and one suspect was convicted of meth possession.

Looters often know where to look for possible burial sites, using maps, the Internet, and other sources to find good "prospecting" areas. In one case, near Horse Thief Lake along the Columbia and adjacent to The Dalles, Ore., Washington State Parks ranger Andy Kallinen came across several looters and their snarling pit bulls a few years back. They fit the "substance abuse profile," he said. But they were more than just your usual youthful dead-enders: They knew a lot about where to look for artifacts because, as one later told Kallinen, he'd been paying attention in high school history class.

One of the most interesting theories about the connection between meth and artifacts comes from Sheriff Pat Garrett of White County, Ark. In 2005, Garrett told The Daily Citizen in Searcy, after having executed more than 100 search warrants, he found two things at nearly every suspected meth lab they busted: porn and arrowheads. In Georgia, an archaeological resources trainer said, "I can't tell you how many calls I've gotten from sheriff's departments asking why they find what they call 'Indian rocks' when they bust meth labs."

One theory is that meth users often exhibit a kind of compulsive behavior while they're high. As described on PBS's Frontline:

Meth, like all stimulants, causes the brain to release high doses of adrenaline, the body's "fight or flight" mechanism, inducing anxiety, wakefulness and intensely focused attention, called "tweaking." When users are tweaking, they exhibit hyperactive and obsessive behavior ...

Such behavior might be self destructive — such as the incessant scratching that causes skin sores common to meth addicts — but for an artifact hunter, it could be just the right prescription. Obsessive compulsive activity is kind of what archaeology and systematic looting are all about. It requires energy and tireless focus. According to one meth user and arrowhead collector:

"You get kind of wired on that stuff and you need to have something to do," [Tony] Young said. It's the tedium of the search and the focus it requires that makes it an attractive hobby to meth users, Young said ... "[H]ead hunting" filled his need for activity when he was on meth.

It had another virtue for Young: When he was busted, he sold his collection to help pay for a lawyer.

Meth addicts wreak more havoc than stealing native artifacts, as do many others who visit remote public lands. And not all artifact looters are drug users or dealers. In Utah, officials are coping with dinosaur fossil thieves who can get up to $500,000 for an Allosaurus specimen. In Idaho, rangers complain that people from rapidly urbanizing Boise are coming to public lands to steal rocks and boulders for their gardens. On the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, organized bands of migrant workers sweep public lands harvesting native plants to sell to commercial florists. The public's restless hands are causing all kinds of trouble.

But it's fascinating to ponder the possibly unique biochemical connection between antiquities theft and meth. I hear they're looking for a new script for the next Indiana Jones film. Here's an idea: call it Indiana Jones and the Last Trip to Rehab.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.