Five years ago, F.B.I. agents descended on a house in rural Indiana packed with ancient artifacts unlawfully obtained by the home’s owner, 91-year-old Don Miller. Over a six-day raid, the agency seized more than 7,000 objects in a collection that ranged in the tens of thousands. It remains the largest single recovery of cultural property in the agency’s history. Witnessing the sheer number of artifacts accumulated was “jaw-dropping,” F.B.I. Agent Tim Carpenter later recollected in an interview with CBC’s Susan Bonner. Most staggering of all was the discovery that Miller had amassed approximately 500 sets of human remains, many of which are believed to have been looted from Native American burial grounds.
Since the raid, the F.B.I. has been quietly working to repatriate the objects and remains to their rightful owners. But to date, only around 15 percent of the horde has been returned. In the hopes of speeding up the identification and repatriation process, the F.B.I. is now publicizing the case.
It was no secret that the homeowner possessed a collection of artifacts that, according to the F.B.I., ultimately swelled to 42,000 in number.
Miller, who died in 2015, was a Christian missionary who was known among his community for his collections of treasure that he accumulated during vacation time traveling the world on “archaeological digs,” according to reporting by Indianapolis Star’s Domenica Bongiovanni. To that end, he often invited local residents, reporters and Boy Scout troops into his home to view his artifacts, however, he kept the human remains largely out of sight, CBS News reports.
But word got out all the same; in 2013, the F.B.I. received a tip that Miller had been keeping ancient human bones, which in turn launched the raid on his home. Packed into display cases in his farmhouse were objects from around the world: North America, South America, Asia, the Caribbean, Papua New Guinea. In some cases, the F.B.I. says, Miller’s collecting had “crossed the line into illegality and outright looting.” That became particularly clear when agents found the human bones among his artifacts.
According to the CBC, it is not clear if Miller obtained the bones on his own, or if he purchased them on the black market. Buying and selling Native American remains is illegal in the United States, thanks to 1990 legislation that sought to correct the once-common practice of looting cultural artifacts from indigenous graves for trade among museums and collectors.
“All too often here we have been treated as curiosities rather than a people here,” Pete Coffey, a tribal official with North Dakota's Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations who is collaborating with the F.B.I., tells CBS News. “They could very well be my own great, great, great, great grandfather, or grandmother … I characterize it as being ripped out of the earth.”
The objects seized from Miller’s home are being held in a facility near Indianapolis, where they are being cared for by anthropologists and local museum studies graduate students. The F.B.I. has been working with Native American tribal leaders, international officials and experts to return the artifacts, 361 of which were recently repatriated to China.
The process has not been easy. Miller spent seven decades amassing his collection, and he did not keep detailed records. The human remains are particularly tricky to identify because DNA analysis is invasive, and Carpenter tells the CBC's Bonner that officials do not want to cause “further offence to the ancestral remains,” and so have not used the process. Instead, the F.B.I. has set up an invitation-only website that contains information about all of the recovered items, and the agency is encouraging Native American tribal representatives, along with experts and foreign officials, to reach out if they think they have a claim to any of the artifacts.
“We have a lot of work left to do,” Carpenter says, “and we can't do that work until the experts come forward and help us identify these pieces and guide us on where they need to go.”