Before he died in 2015, the home of 91-year-old former missionary Donald C. Miller was practically a museum, filled with thousands of ancient artifacts from several different cultures and countries. Unfortunately, included in that “museum” were thousands of stolen Native American bones.
The FBI raided his home in 2014 to preserve whatever they could, according to a new interview with Tim Carpenter, who leads the FBI’s art theft unit.
… when the FBI’s art crime detectives showed up and began sifting through Miller’s extensive collection in April 2014, suspecting that many of the relics carefully laid out in the cabinets had been obtained in violation of antiquities laws, they came across something that horrified them: about 2,000 human bones, nearly all of which are thought to have been taken from ancient Native American burial sites.
“To the best of our knowledge right now, those 2,000 bones represent about 500 human beings,” Tim Carpenter, who heads the FBI’s art theft unit, told CBS News in an interview that aired Tuesday. “It’s very staggering.”
The FBI eventually found more than 42,000 stolen artifacts in Miller’s home. He admitted that he came into possession of the artifacts via unsanctioned archaeological digs and agreed that they ought to be returned, Carpenter said.
He died before that could happen, however, throwing a wrench in the investigation of his actions. The FBI still has no idea why he obtained so many human bones, but attempts are being made to return them to their original burial places.
Robert A. Jones, the FBI special agent in charge of the case, told reporters at the time that Miller’s methods for procuring some of those objects had violated multiple laws and treaties, but also undercut that claim by acknowledging that the relevant statutes may not have been in place yet. After all, Miller had started his collection eight decades before, when he first found arrowheads on his family’s farm as a child.
Advocates for criminal justice reform and libertarian groups such as the Cato Institute were quick to criticize what they considered an overly aggressive approach from the FBI, arguing that the government had offered no evidence that Miller had done anything illegal. “The FBI plan is apparently to seize the contents of an elderly man’s lifelong hobby, then force him to prove he obtained each item in his collection legally,” Radley Balko wrote in The Washington Post.
It’s one thing to have an interest in archaeology and another to smuggle artifacts out of their country of origin. That crosses the line between “hobby” and “criminal.”
Regardless of his intentions, Miller’s actions follow in the footsteps of white Christian missionaries who have been wiping out the memories of countless indigenous tribes for centuries. Even if he meant no harm, leaving the objects where he found them would have allowed actual historians to learn about who these people were. He didn’t do that because he didn’t care. Now, that aspect of history could be lost forever.