Obsidian arrowheads are shown by Batsulwin Brown, tribal historic preservation officer at the Big Valley Rancheria in Lake County. Ancient Native American artifacts similar to these are at the center of a recent arrest in Lake County. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)
The wildfires ravaging Lake County this summer might have an impact unnoticed by most people: the increased looting of ancient Native American artifacts.
Local Pomo residents worry that the fires, which have cleared trees and structures off land, and the drought, which has lowered water levels at Clear Lake, are making it easier for looters to unearth relics that belonged to their ancestors.
Although theft at Native American sites is nothing new, local sheriff's deputies are being trained for the first time in how to identify and investigate these crimes. That led to the arrest last month of a man suspected of stealing obsidian arrowheads and other artifacts.
The case may be the first arrest of its kind in Lake County, according to the Lake County Sheriff’s Office.
The obsidian cutting tools at the center of this case look similar to the arrowheads that Batsulwin Brown is pulling out of a small box at Big Valley Rancheria near the city of Lakeport. The reservation is home to Pomo Indians who have a long history of hunting and fishing in Clear Lake, the largest natural freshwater lake wholly within the state.
Brown, tribal historic preservation officer at Big Valley, picks through the arrowheads, which he estimates are at least 500 years old.
“This is one of the most defined pieces here. Feel the edges. It still has a very sharp edge,” says Brown.
Next, he carefully removes a collection of clam shell beads from labeled plastic bags. He estimates these beads are about 5,000 years old.
“They are fragile. You can see some of the white residue coming on my fingers from the shells,” says Brown, adding that local authorities returned these beads to the Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians after a landowner dug them up from his garden and turned them in.
For Brown, these artifacts are invaluable. They connect today’s Pomo to their ancestors in a physical way.
“Helps paint a picture for us of what went on out there if we don’t have any members or direct descendants who lived at that site to give us more information,” says Brown, who grew up at the Elem Pomo reservation near the town of Clearlake Oaks, playing at a Superfund site next door.
He considers the mercury pollution from that mine, which he says led to deadly cancers among his relatives, as one of many injustices faced by local tribes.
Part of the healing needed by Native American communities, says Brown, is brought about by piecing together their rich history from ancient artifacts.
But Brown and other native residents fear that in many cases, tools, effigies and other remains from Pomo archaeological sites are stolen for commercial gain.
On Aug. 22, Lake County Deputy Sheriff Richard Kreutzer discovered obsidian cutting tools and other artifacts inside the van of a man he suspected of being high on methamphetamines and trespassing on private property.
“I booked him on felony possession of these artifacts, and the investigation is ongoing,” says Kreutzer, who has worked with the sheriff’s office since 2012. “I’m currently trying to confirm where the items were removed from to bring this evidence to a judge.”
But until now, this law hadn't been enforced here. That is why the sheriff’s office says this arrest might be the first of its kind in Lake County.
“In all honesty, I might have come across these types of things in other calls but didn’t necessarily knew what they were,” says Kreutzer. “Now thanks to this training ... we are a little more aware of what we are looking at.”
Forensic archaeologist Martin McAllister led the training and has worked on hundreds of cases involving looters in Arizona and other parts of the country since 1977. He says archaeological crimes are frequently connected to drug use, especially meth, with looters selling relics to buy drugs.
“Typically (looters) are going to be high on some type of drug like methamphetamine. They are going to be armed, and they know what they are doing is illegal, so it can create a very dangerous situation out there on the ground,” says McAllister by phone from Missoula, Montana, where he resides.
McAllister says that once these items wind up in the black market, they can fetch big money.
“It’s a multimillion-dollar industry here in the United States,” says McAllister, adding that the international black market for all archaeologically significant items is estimated at $7 billion. “It’s second only to drugs and weapons, in terms of the amount of money it generates every year.”
The high incidence of meth use in Lake County likely plays a role in looting, says McAllister. Lake County leads the state's 58 counties in terms of drug-induced deaths, according to the most recent figures from the California Department of Public Health.
McAllister says that drought conditions and wildfires are exposing archaeological sites around Clear Lake that were not visible, making these potential troves more accessible than before.
Wildfires and drought increase access in Lake County
Wildfires raging in the area since July have burned vegetation and structures in 171,000 acres so far. At the same time, the state’s four-year drought is making Clear Lake’s shoreline recede as water levels drop.
In September 2011, Clear Lake’s water levels were about 2 feet higher than today, says Andrew Watson, field office chief at the U.S. Geological Survey Ukiah branch. During a wet year such as 1984, water levels were 10 feet higher than today, he says.
But Dino Beltran, from the Koi Nation, says the theft of Native American relics has occurred for many decades, regardless of the weather. He first alerted authorities to these crimes after he spotted a pair of suspicious diggers on marshland near his ancestral home.
“People trying to benefit from somebody else's belongings that should be left on the ground,” says Beltran, who pushed for the training with local law enforcement. “I mean they are sacred objects. You don’t see Native Americans going to a cemetery and digging up the cemetery, so why would anyone want to do anything sacrilegious to a Native American site?”
Though the looting case in Lake County is still under investigation, the sheriff’s office and Beltran believe that the items recovered by Kreutzer are most likely from the Koi Nation. The suspect was released on bail a few days after the arrest.