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Artifact hunting popular as Missouri River level drops
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Artifact hunting is popular because people want to find a perfect point like this one. This was found along the banks of the Missouri River. (MPR Photo/Cara Hetland)
It's against the law to take anything from federal parks or protected land. That includes driftwood, plants, and even rocks. Some federal land is prime hunting ground for Native American artifacts. Even more so now, along the banks of the Missouri River.

Artifacts such as arrowheads, points and scrapers are exposed because of low river levels due to a five-year drought. Looters are hitting the jackpot, and law enforcement is cracking down.

Pierre, S.D. — There's an attraction for some people in finding a perfect arrowhead. The attraction is holding history in your hands. For Native Americans, those artifacts mean something else. They are confirmation of a history passed down from generation to generation.

Alfred LeBeau, the cultural preservationist for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, says when one artifact is removed it's like removing part of a picture.

"Some of the other bigger sites may have a whole story of how this site came to be, and what happened at that site. It might have been someone had a dream or a vision, and they marked this area on a rock," says LeBeau.

LeBeau says it's important for Native Americans to understand their own history before anyone else does. And when pieces are removed, the stories scatter. He suggests people leave the rock where it's found, and take a picture of it instead.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for policing the artifacts. Corps archeologist Rich Harnois has a file cabinet in his office that's full of small plastic bags -- bags that contain artifacts confiscated from looters. Harnois refers to one of the looters as a human vacuum cleaner, who had collected 15 bags of artifacts from the banks of the Missouri River.

Harnois says there's an art to finding artifacts, and the serious looters know where to look.

"They will try and find burial areas if they can, in order to find the artifacts," says Harnois. "They aren't after the human remains themselves. What they hope to do is find grave goods that were included in the burial."

It's these burial sites that are being exposed by low water levels along the Missouri River.

Some of the grave goods Harnois refers to are things like jewelry made of bones or sea shells. He says where there is a burial site, there's often an old campsite nearby. And that's the jackpot for a looter, because it will likely hold a cache of arrowheads, scrapers, spears and pottery.

Harnois says he's stumped as to why people want to collect things they know they have stolen.

"When they do that, the only one they're enriching is themselves. They take it home and put it on the wall in their basement. Nobody gets to see it," says Harnois. "And of course they know they collected it illegally, so it never sees the light of day, and the rest of the population never gets to enjoy that or learn anything from it."

Some looters take to keep; others take to sell. There's a big market for such artifacts, and it's easy to find them for sale on the Internet. A recent search for "arrowheads" on the eBay online auction site turned up more than 2,000 items for sale. The growing market for these items is part of what worries South Dakota officials.

The tip line for reporting looting activity is 1-866-NO SWIPE.

The artifacts may not all be from South Dakota, but people are willing to pay. The prices range from 99 cents to more than $200. People are selling their personal collections still under glass, and some are selling individual points they've found.

Rich Harnois says the artifacts mean nothing when they are taken out of context. Because of that, archeologists no longer remove artifacts found at an excavation site. Instead, they map and categorize them as they are found.

Harnois says looters and law enforcement officials alike know where the popular sites are along the Missouri River, and they're monitored for any activity. Even the general public keeps an eye out, and can call a new tip line to report looters.

Harnois says looters found with arrowheads or other artifacts in their pocket face fines ranging from $250 for a first offense to $250,000 for multiple offenses.

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