Monday, April 18, 2005


Artifact looting problem increases as water falls on Lake Oahe


Rapid City Journal
By Kevin Woster
April 16, 2005

PIERRE -- As Lake Oahe inches its way down to a record low, the falling water is exposing bits and pieces of the past — from the concrete burial vaults of recent history to ancient artifacts of Plains people who lived thousands of years ago.

Scattered across thousands of acres of isolated, normally submerged land, the relics are easily accessible to artifact hunters who ransack important sites for arrowheads, pottery shards and even personal items associated with human remains, according to Rick Harnois, a senior field archaeologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Pierre.

"The lower the water gets, the more land we have to manage and the more archaeological sites are exposed," Harnois said. "It has increased our problems with looting quite a bit in the last year as lake levels have dropped."

The artifacts and virtually all other items appearing now along Oahe are protected by federal law. People who take them could face maximum penalties of a year in jail and a $10,000 fine.

But the acres of accessible land are many, and law enforcement personnel are few. The odds are with the looters — a mix of weekend artifact hunters oblivious to laws and more-insidious commercial looters with big money on their minds."

What we're really after are the folks who are doing this for a living," Harnois said. "They're taking this stuff, selling it on eBay, stealing from all of us."

Artifact theft is one of many challenges facing state, federal and tribal resource officials because of the continuous drought in the Upper Missouri River Basin. After reaching a record low last year, Lake Oahe gained a few feet during the winter. But water is falling again.

Already, the lake is within 2 feet of last year's record low, and it is unlikely that much help will come from the all-important mountain streams that feed the upper Missouri River.

"We're basically at the point now where we're not going to get any new snowpack," state Game, Fish & Parks Department parks and recreation director Doug Hofer said. "Projections by the corps suggest that the lake will drop about 10 feet over the course of the summer from where it is now — which is about 2 feet lower than a month ago and about 2 feet from the all-time low set last fall," Hofer said.

As managers of boat ramps up and down the reservoir, GF&P will be busy this year extending and relocating about a dozen key boat ramps to keep them in operation. In 2001, there were 32 operating ramps on the reservoir.

GF&P fisheries personnel have other worries. Falling water in April is bad for fish spawning. Baitfish, especially smelt, that are crucial to the all-important walleye population in the lake, spawn in shallow water. Falling water can expose those vulnerable eggs. Even walleye eggs can be exposed in some situations.

GF&P staff members will struggle with those issues while leaving the main job of protecting archaeological sites to the Corps of Engineers. Even though the state has taken management of most of the recreation sites on the Missouri River from the corps, it hasn't taken the responsibility for most archaeological sites, Hofer said.

"Anything that's being exposed under current lake levels is clearly corps property," he said. "And it will continue to be corps property."

The archaeological areas include American Indian burial sites and campsites. Some are hardly more than a hundred years old, but others date back thousands of years. There are sites at virtually all elevations because predecessors of Plains Indians tribes made winter camps along the Missouri River and summer camps higher up in the breaks, Harnois said.

"They're definitely prehistoric," Harnois said. "Most of the human remains we find can be attributed to the ancestors of the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota — the Arikara, Hidatsa and Mandan groups."

And there were a lot of Lakota moving through the area later on."The corps works with Indian tribes in North Dakota and South Dakota to protect sites. In the case of exposed human remains, they could be protected at that location or reburied. The corps usually defers to how the tribes want the situations handled, Harnois said.

The corps has more flexibility in the case of other artifacts. Harnois and other archaeologists can learn much about a site simply by studying it. Sometimes, however, they might collect a few items to further research.

Even that troubles many Indians."The tribes we work with feel very strongly about that. They'd just as soon that everything was left," Harnois said. "They understand if I need to take things out of there once in a while. It really hurts them to have that stuff taken away. They feel it belongs to the people who made it and left it and used it there.

"Some people don't respect those tribal sentiments, however. And artifact hunters still take many items that are valuable from both a tribal and historic standpoint, Harnois said.

"When I come up on a site that has been recently exposed and looters beat me to it, I have no way of knowing what type of site it was," he said. "It definitely does nobody any good to have them take them home and hang them on their walls in the basement. It's illegal. They can never see the light of day."

Tribal officials on the Cheyenne River and Standing Rock reservations try to monitor sites on adjoining shoreline. But, like the corps, the tribes have too few people and too much land to watch.

Tim Mentz, historic preservation officer for the Standing Rock Tribe, said the situation becomes more critical with every inch Oahe drops.

"We had more than 20 village sites that were inundated, and all of them are out now," Mentz said. "It's uncharted ground that these guys now have access to. They're picking up everything that has a dollar value associated with it, and they're pretty well-educated in what those things are worth. They're going after the old items."

Mentz said the corps had made a "good-faith effort to help" but that it wasn't enough. Along with corps rangers trained to watch for site looting, state conservation officers and county sheriffs and their deputies help protect sites, Harnois said.

"We can go right up to the FBI if we need to bring them in," he said. "It's serious business all over the country. And we're pretty serious about keeping people out of this stuff."

Boaters, anglers and hikers along the reservoir can help the cause of site protection by reporting artifacts and their locations to the corps.

"Our message is that they should let us know when they find something that they feel is out of the ordinary," he said.

Some sites are so sensitive to damage that corps officials have marked them off limits to trespassing. Just walking into those areas could result in a ticket, Harnois said.

People who happen on unmarked sites can enjoy their look at history and leave the artifacts in place, he said.

"They should remember, there might be someone looking over their shoulder."


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