Modern-day grave robbing: The motives & the pain

For hundreds of years, some have had a fascination with collecting from Native American graves, keeping skeletons to “study” and relics as trophies.
Published: Jun. 7, 2023 at 10:26 AM MDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - When a loved one is laid to rest, the expectation is for the grave to remain untouched.

For one group of South Dakotans, peace is not found at the burial site.

“It’s almost as if we’re not humans,” said Dawn Marie Johnson, director of leadership and culture for the South Dakota Afterschool Network.

“You could call it graverobbing, too,” said Flandreau Tribal Historian Garrie Kills A Hundred.

For hundreds of years, some have had a fascination with collecting from Native American graves, keeping skeletons to “study” and relics as trophies.

Kills A Hundred saw it firsthand on his father’s reservation West River.

“They go out on the reservation, pitch up a tent over something, and there’s a false bottom — there’s no bottom in the tent — and just dig and dig and dig, make believe they’re camping, and they’re not camping,” said Kills A Hundred.

Holly Cusack-McVeigh, professor of anthropology and museum studies, was asked to identify and help return belongings from one of the largest FBI raids in 2013.

“Looting and grave robbing are not a thing of the past,” said Cusack-McVeigh. “But this is an ongoing issue for tribes and for indigenous communities around the world.”

A tip revealed missionary Don Miller of Indiana was hoarding thousands of relics in his basement, with one display case labeled South Dakota.

“He had what he fancied a museum set up in his basement,” said Cusack-McVeigh. “But he had cultural items and the remains of ancestors throughout the property in every building, every outbuilding.”

Once inside, investigators were shocked to find more than Native American funerary items. They discovered a back room filled with skeletons — relatives’ remains.

“Throughout his life, Miller, we know, removed from sites throughout South Dakota,” said Cusack-McVeigh. “His digging activities in South Dakota go way back to the late 1950s, and for many years in the 60s, it looks as though he returned every summer to South Dakota for what he considered digging expeditions — what we know to be looting and grave robbing activities.”

Some who open graves and take what they desire see it as an expedition or a hobby. Others sell items on the black market for profit. No matter what the motive, the descendants of those violated — including Kyrie Dunkley — feel the pain.

“For someone to take that away and put it on display without permission and profiteering off of it — that’s just so heartbreaking,” said Dunkley.

The law to protect sacred items is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

The penalty for knowingly possessing Native American remains or belongings can include fines and/or imprisonment for up to a year.

You can see which items have been offered for return or which entities need to comply using this searchable database where you can see a list by tribe or by institution.

Part 2

The Missouri River and its banks are sacred to the South Dakota Native American tribes.

“There are thousands and thousands of sacred sites along this river because we lived here. This was our life source. So there are burials, birth sites, Genesis sites,” said Faith Spotted Eagle.

But those with a darker motive know about the many remains and funerary objects buried near the banks. Whether the items are plucked from an area washed away by the river or intentionally dug up, modern-day grave robbing occurs along these shores. State archeologist Cassie Vogt knows grave robbing is not a thing of the past.

“Along the Missouri, it’s just a very archaeological-rich area,” said Vogt. “So looting and vandalism are widespread issues.”

While many place loved ones in the ground and never expect them to be disturbed, Native Americans don’t have the same assurance.

Dawn Marie Johnson wants to protect her ancestors’ burial sites.

“To know that there’s folks who feel entitled to rummage through, like we’re not human beings, and touch our ancestors in such a way when we’ve already had so much genocide and trauma within us is really heartbreaking,” Johnson said.

When the FBI raided the home of missionary Don Miller of Indiana, they contacted the tribes of South Dakota with the shocking news of their discovery. Relics and ancestral remains were taken from South Dakota and put in Miller’s private museum.

Holly Cusack-McVeigh helped facilitate their return.

“South Dakota tribes took a very early and strong stand in supporting the efforts to get their ancestors and their belongings back home,” Cusack-McVeigh said.

The FBI continues to identify and return other belongings across the globe from that raid. The tribes of South Dakota and their spiritual leaders took back the sacred items to their people.

“All of the cultural items and the ancestors we know belong in South Dakota are now back home — well over 400 cultural items,” said Cusack-McVeigh.

As society understands the pain of collecting Native American objects and remains, activist Kyrie Dunkley believes a new generation can change the narrative of who should hold these belongings in their care.

“There is not much that you can do to change what happened before.” said Dunkley. “You can give it back and take steps toward reconciliation.”

Cultural items can be returned to any South Dakota tribe or the state archeologist’s office, even anonymously.