Sunday, June 14, 2009



A Utah physician indicted in a federal investigation into the theft of ancient artifacts in the Four Corners region has been found dead in an apparent suicide, a sheriff’s official said Friday.

San Juan County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Grayson Redd, a distant relative, said James Redd’s body was found Thursday afternoon by his local church leader near a dried-up pond on his property in Blanding.

Phil Mueller, a family member, said Redd died from apparent carbon monoxide poisoning in his Jeep.

“It’s a tragic loss for the community,” Mueller said. “He was everybody’s general practitioner and birthed most of the babies in Blanding.”

Police did not verify a cause of death, but the sheriff’s chief deputy said the death has been ruled a suicide.

James Redd, 60, was one of 24 people indicted after a two-year investigation. The indictments were announced by federal officials Wednesday. Court papers say those involved stole, received or tried to sell Native American artifacts, including bowls, stone pipes, arrowheads, pendants and necklaces.

Redd was charged with one felony count of theft of Indian tribal property. His wife, 59-year-old Jean Redd, was also charged.

Of those indicted, 19 are from southern Utah, four are from Colorado, and one is from New Mexico. They range in age from 27 to 78.

BLM and FBI agents assigned to the investigation used a confidential source who came forward in 2006 and paid more than $335,00 during the following two years for 256 stolen artifacts, according to court documents.

It’s impossible to judge such a case from the outside with this little information, but on the surface it appears that this respected doctor in a conservative community was so devastated by this accusation that he abandoned his wife, also accused, and snuffed himself. But people all over the West -- both Indian and white -- have picked up and bought arrowheads and larger objects for centuries. People proudly show off their arrowhead collections, arranged in patterns on cotton and put under glass.

In my neighborhood in Portland, the amateur anthropologist on the back of the block had a considerable aggregation of stones with worn or chipped patterns on them to indicate they had been used for pounding or grinding. When he died, our next door neighbor took them to his house. When he died, my mother moved them to the side of our garage, arranged in a row. Before my mother died, they were all stolen, probably by a man she hired to help her in the yard.

They are seen as “found wealth” that belong to no one. We could go out to the likely places around Valier and find some today. Look on high places, where a sentinel might sit flint-knapping the day away. Look in places that the wind or erosion or human activity has turned up or worn away the earth. Check out the tailings of gophers and badgers who’ve been digging burrows. Bob used to pride himself on being able to spot arrowheads, often small, since they only needed to provide a sharp point on the end of the arrow.

If you pick up something small that has belonged to no living person in a place where it has been for centuries, isn’t that harmless? It’s not as though one stole a framed collection from a basement museum or, indeed, a curated collection presented at a university or major institution. This is not the same thing as picking up as fully-beaded buckskin parade outfit complete with an eagle tail-feather Sioux bonnet! You could hardly find such a thing lying on a gopher hill anyway. But, you know, you find it in a hock shop in some small town. The decorating magazines are stuffed with photos of rooms with walls where elegant bags and banners hang.

We are in a time when a LOT of rules have changed. Every morning when I go to the post office, some guy and I have to do a little dance about the doors -- who opens it for whom? I have a pocketful of jokes to relieve the situation. Often the guy is older, raised to believe women are special and should be cherished and protected. Do I want to give that up? But it’s a generalized assumption. Some women are special and cherishable and some are not.

Likewise, our assumptions about American Indians and their artifacts. Two hundred years ago (1809) artifacts -- even skulls -- were considered war trophies and curiosities. A hundred and fifty years ago (1859) the flashy outfits were just being constructed and the Medicine Pipe Bundles were being created, because the people needed power. A hundred years ago (1909) the American Indian was the face of the United States: noble, spiritual, and elegant. Fifty years ago (1959) the back-hoes were digging out buffalo jumps so the local ranchers could sift the dirt for arrowheads. Today (2009) all that sort of thing has gone underground and you have to know the right people to buy the really good stuff, unless you’re willing to accept arti-fakes, which are remarkably good. Tribes are aggressive about protecting their land.

Like everything else we drive underground, once forbidden the objects in question were greatly enhanced in value and a network sprang up, often among people who were already inclined to be secretive. My guess is that they are about evenly divided between red and white. That is, if you accept a marginal, sometimes low-quantum, sometimes urban enrolled person as “Indian.” I expect there are more men than women. There is sometimes a gay connection, partly because NA populations do not demonize gays. (Today they DO demonize artifact dealers.) And there can be a drug connection because drugs are money and they are underground.

Why would a doctor get involved in the first place? Because he has much money (legal). Why would he be so humiliated as to commit suicide? Two possible reasons: he was educated and therefore understood the high post-colonial reasoning about ownership that would be used against him in court -- let alone the fact that he was committing a felony -- and maybe because a doctor is invested in privacy. Things happen in the medical context that neither the law nor society wants to know about, which is why there is such a high value on confidentiality in professions. Sometimes justice and the law do not dance together, even among lawyers and judges, much less officers.

A third reason: Native American issues are so highly politicized, so incendiary, so reinforced by emotional ideas left over from the early days (that Indians are all noble, that Indians are all fiendish killers, that ALL Indians are really like each other, that collecting arrowheads is an innocent pursuit) that it’s pretty tough to keep a clear head about the issues. This case turns up some real biggies with major consequences, quite apart from the life of the ironically named Doctor Redd.


billco said...

A Google alert for arrowheads took me to your blog. I had already read the news story, but enjoyed your comments very much. A lot of truth in what you said.

lancemfoster said...

Well, as an NA, as a guy that as a kid liked collecting stuff I found, and as an archaeologist...

Sure, everybody likes collecting stuff, and it doesn't seem like much harm to take stuff like that

The ethos of the oldtime NA tribes that I know about had no trouble picking up a stray, isolated found arrowhead and including it in their medicine. It was like a gift in a way. But one still needed caution, because you never know

But they would never have disturbed a site, a place where the old ones camped, lived, or were buried. Never would they have bothered the dead or chipped off petroglyph or pictograph panels or done random vandalism

The thing about isolated finds is that you never know if they are really isolated. especially the average Joe who doesn't really know what he is doing.

Each thing a person picks up as a collected piece loses its context, the most important part: the story it could tell.

Plus on federal, state or tribal lands, it is illegal...because that little arrowhead belongs to everyone. When I see something, I look at it, but I don't take it.

Remember the story of Scarface? He knew not to take what was not his. And things worked out for him with the Sun because he did not take what was not his.