Donald Miller’s home museum (courtesy of FBI)

We all have fun little hobbies: gardening, bowling, or, like one man in Waldron, Indiana, stealing other people’s culture, including the literal bones of their ancestors. Four years ago, the FBI found more than 40,000 individual relics and works of art in the home of Indiana “collector” Donald Miller, including pre-Columbian pottery, ancient weapons, and items in a case labeled “Chinese jewelry” dated to 500 BCE. The objects were arranged in a vast sort of home museum, and included specimens from around the globe — thousands of which were sourced in violation of antiquities laws and federal and state statutes. As reported by SF Gate, according to the FBI, Miller went on digs around the world and illegally brought his finds home to the United States.

But this Wunderkammer turned the corner into a wtfuckerkammer when the FBI raid revealed some 2,000 human skeletal remains amid Miller’s collection, revealing the man to be less a collector than a grave robber (though arguably the line gets blurry at times). It’s estimated the bones belong to 500 Arikara Native American individuals, stolen from burial sites primarily in North Dakota. Though the FBI first engaged with Miller in 2014, the grave-robber and antiquities hoarder passed away in 2015 at the age of 91, leaving the federal organization with a logistical nightmare, in terms of returning the purloined remains and objects to their rightful places of origin.

As reported this week on FBI News, the federal agency is now publicizing the case, along with an invitation-only website detailing the items, in the hopes of gaining further assistance from governments around the world and from Native American tribes to locate their rightful origins. Since, for some 70 years, Miller actively unearthed cultural artifacts from North America, South America, Asia, the Caribbean, and in Indo-Pacific regions such as Papua New Guinea, the number of affected parties is complex, and the disbanding of 7,000 items reclaimed by the FBI in 2014, as well as the human remains which triggered their investigation, is only now being realized.

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“It was a very complex operation,” Special Agent Tim Carpenter, who oversees the FBI’s art theft program and who led the 2014 recovery effort in Indiana, is quoted as saying. “We are not treating this material as simply evidence. These objects are historically, culturally, and spiritually important, and you have to take that into consideration.” He added:

We are dealing in many cases with objects that are thousands of years old. So imagine a scenario where you take an artifact that was created 4,000 years ago, survived in the ground or a tomb, survived being looted, survived being transported to the United States, has been in this guy’s house for the last 60 years, and the FBI comes along and we pick it up and we stumble and we drop it and we break it. That’s a pretty bad day.

The mere physical delicacy of the objects in question fairly pales in comparison to the delicacy with which the FBI must trace the rightful provenance of these objects, which Miller liked to display to visiting school groups (though the human remains he kept largely to himself, and the occasional visiting serial killer who might be into that kind of thing). Miller was a renowned scientist who helped build the first atomic bomb, so presumably, his nightmares were haunted by many a restless spirit, and not just those he had disinterred to add to his collection.

As the affair inches towards its resolution, officials from China are due in Indianapolis this week to recover their relics, CBS reports. But the whole situation raises timely questions about the line between grave-robbing and archaeology. With the continuing struggle for people like the Rapa Nui of Easter Island to recover sacred artifacts taken by the British and held as cultural treasures, the Donald Miller case is a sobering object lesson in white entitlement to world culture, and the reluctance some have to return what they have taken. According to the FBI, Miller was compliant with their orders and expressed a desire to see the remains and stolen artifacts returned to their rightful place in the world — but the underlying issue seems to be the sense that it was ever okay to take them in the first place.

Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...