When the FBI raised Don Miller’s Rush County farm in 2014, they found more than 42,000 cultural artifacts from around the world. Now they’re trying to return them to their rightful owners.
Dwight Adams, firstname.lastname@example.org
Thousands of human bones taken from Native American burial sites among the items found at Don Miller’s Rush County home.
INDIANAPOLIS –Almost five years ago, the FBI traveled to an Indiana man’s remote property to seize what it calls the largest single recovery of cultural property in its history.
Don Miller was a scientist, archaeology enthusiast, well-liked philanthropist and amateur radio expert who lived in Waldron, about 35 miles southeast of Indianapolis. The World War II Army Reserve veteran, who said he worked on the development of the atomic bomb, traveled the world. And he collected items that he stored in his home, a second home and other outbuildings around his property.
Thousands of bones from burial grounds
Acting on a tip, the FBI surrounded his home in April 2014, and what it found was staggering, according to a Wednesday release.
For the first time, the bureau is saying publicly that it found enough bones to make up about 500 humans, most of which were taken from Native American burial grounds, the FBI stated.
A Ming Dynasty vase, Italian mosaic and spiritually significant items were part of the collection. Miller had objects from the Revolutionary War and Civil War eras. Visitors remember seeing a shrunken head. Overall, the bureau counted about 42,000 items, more than 7,000 of which it seized.
The latter are the objects connected with what the FBI called Miller’s “passion for collecting (that) sometimes crossed the line into illegality and outright looting.”
Now, the FBI has several tasks to accomplish. It will repatriate a number of Chinese cultural artifacts to China in a 2 p.m. ceremony on Thursday at the Eiteljorg Museum. At 361 items, it’s the biggest return of this type from the U.S. to China, according to the bureau.
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And it continues to seek out the proper owners of the approximately 7,000 artifacts. Miller did not have records with detailed information, and what he had is so vast that no one can single-handedly identify all of it.
So the FBI has set up what it calls an invitation-only website to collect more information from other countries’ governments and Native American tribes. It has asked them to inquire whether any of the artifacts belong to them by emailing email@example.com.
In 2013, the FBI received a tip that Miller had human remains on his property, according to the release. Agents spent six days pulling out the objects he possessed illegally. Over seven decades, Miller had collected cultural artifacts from North and South America, Asia, the Caribbean and Papua New Guinea, among other places.
He was generous about showing his collection to visitors, according to IndyStar archive accounts. But the FBI said he largely hid the human remains. It has been working with tribal authorities to re-bury the bones that have been given back to tribes.
“When you die, your spirit goes back to your ancestral village,” said Pete Coffey, a tribal official who is working with the FBI, in a release. “If you are not buried with proper ceremony, or if that was interrupted like these burials were, you will never be able to go to back to that village.”
Thousands of items yet to be returned
Since 2014, the FBI has been caring for the artifacts in a leased space near Indianapolis as it tries to find the proper owners. Teams of archaeologists, tribal authorities and graduate students from IUPUI have been identifying and maintaining the artifacts in the appropriate temperature and light.
“We are dealing in many cases with objects that are thousands of years old,” said Tim Carpenter, the FBI’s Art Crime Team supervisory special agent, in the FBI’s release. “So imagine a scenario where you take an artifact that was created 4,000 years ago, survived in the ground or a tomb, survived being looted, survived being transported to the United States, has been in this guy’s house for the last 60 years, and the FBI comes along and we pick it up and we stumble and we drop it and we break it. That’s a pretty bad day.”
Miller died in March 2015 at age 91. The FBI did not charge or arrest Miller before his death. And since then, it has not made any charges or arrests in connection with his collection, according to Carpenter.
“He cooperated with us throughout the course of the investigation,” Carpenter said in the release, “and it was his wish that we take these objects and return them to their rightful owners, and for the Native American ancestors to be reburied appropriately.”
The bureau has so far returned artifacts to Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, New Zealand and Spain. The U.S. Embassy Ottawa tweeted in October that the Canadian Museum of Nature was showcasing mammoth tusks Miller took during a trip between Calgary and the Yukon border with Alaska in 1960.
Still, what has been repatriated so far equates to only about 15 percent of what the FBI acquired, according to Carpenter.
As for Thursday, it’s not publicly known which specific items the U.S. will hand over to China. The FBI is not releasing a list or details about the pieces, but China might once it has custody of them, Carpenter said.
Follow Domenica Bongiovanni on Twitter: @domenicareports
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