March 10, 2010

FBI probing 'scalps' for sale on Internet


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Staff Writer

PORTLAND — The FBI is investigating recent posts on that offered to sell ''Maine Indian scalps'' to ''white people only,'' according to court documents and the leader of the Penobscot Indian Nation, who reported the situation to state and federal officials.

The person who posted the items claimed to have six scalps and related artifacts that were obtained by bounty hunters in the 1700s and came into his possession through a private family collection.

The posts included a Maine cell phone number and the contact name ''Whitely Bradford.'' The phone was not accepting calls this week, and the posts are no longer accessible on craigslist, a popular Web site that allows people to sell, buy and trade goods and services.

It is unclear whether the scalps exist, or whether the person who posted the ad was trying to carry out an elaborate hoax. But based on dates and other details in the posts, federal investigators and Penobscot leaders have proceeded under the assumption that they are legitimate.

''The big thing for us is to be able to deal with those remains properly,'' said Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis. ''It is a hard period of time to look back on anyway. To have the tribe reminded of that in such a blatant fashion, and then trying to have someone profit on it, that just doesn't sit well.

''To have parts of dead native people and to be selling them, this obviously is not acceptable,'' Francis said.

The posts were brought to Francis' attention by an anonymous e-mail. After reviewing them with members of the Penobscot Tribal Historic Preservation Office, Francis reported them to the U.S. Department of Justice and the state Attorney General's Office.

Last month, the FBI obtained e-mails and other computer evidence affiliated with two Yahoo e-mail addresses that were linked to craigslist posts on June 4 and June 6.

In a five-page affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Portland, FBI Special Agent James Lechner said the posts gave him probable cause to investigate a possible violation of federal law: trafficking in American Indian remains.

That specific offense was created in 1990 as part of the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and is punishable by as much as one year in prison.

Todd DiFede, the FBI's supervisory agent in Maine, said Wednesday that he could not comment on an ongoing investigation. Halsey Frank, an assistant U.S. attorney who has been involved with the case, also declined to comment.

Francis said he and other tribal leaders initially doubted the craigslist posts.

''We said, 'Well, maybe someone is just trying to get our hair up here,' '' he said. ''It started to become more and more credible.''

The posts claim that the scalps were obtained for bounties between 1700 and 1760.

Francis said that during that time, British colonists offered bounties for the capture or killing of Penobscot men, women and children. One formal proclamation was made in 1755 by Spencer Phips, lieutenant governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay.

If the scalps do exist, Francis said, he will do whatever it takes to retrieve them and provide a proper burial on Penobscot land. Francis said he is confident that the FBI investigation will uncover the truth.

''It has been three months, so of course we would like things to be moving a lot quicker,'' he said. ''At this point, we are getting a little impatient, but we are also trying to let them focus on what they need to do.

''This really is on a whole new level,'' Francis said. ''Something like this is not representative of Maine. It has no place here.''

One craigslist post appeared on June 4, offering ''a rare collection of museum quality Maine Indian scalps. Included is two squaws, two children and two 'noble indigenous savages.' ''

The post said the items -- including ''beads, tattoos and leather tags to identify the sex and approximate age'' -- were in shadow boxes and were part of a ''private Fesseden museum.''

''There was a recent death in the ownership,'' the post said. ''The family were among Maine's earliest settlers and will discriminate in selling to white people only.''

Another post appeared on June 6, with much of the same information. It said the scalps were from the ''Fesseden-Avery collection which was a privately owned museum.

''Early white settlers who were taming the new lands were able to subdue these primitives,'' the post said. ''Obviously, these artifacts aren't for everybody and I will discriminate (def: means to choose wisely) and sell to white people only.''

Julia Clark, collections manager at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, said private collections of tribal items do exist in Maine but she has never heard of anyone possessing human remains.

She said she has never heard of a ''Fesseden'' or ''Fesseden-Avery'' collection. Clark said there are no known examples in New England of American Indian scalps preserved from the era of bounty hunting.

The Abbe Museum offers exhibitions and programs on Maine's Wabanaki heritage. The Wabanaki people include Maine's four Indian tribes: Maliseet, Micmac, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy.

Clark does not believe that anyone has ever been prosecuted in Maine for trafficking in American Indian artifacts or remains. She said the posts deserve the full attention of law enforcement agencies, even if they turn out to be a hoax.

''The cultural insensitivity in the posts, that alone is distressing,'' Clark said.

John Bear Mitchell said it is hard for him to understand how human remains could be so devalued. Mitchell is a member of the Penobscot Nation who teaches at the University of Maine and is associate director of the school's Wabanaki Center.

''Even if it is hair, with a little bit of flesh on it, that is human remains. That could be one of our ancestors,'' Mitchell said. ''This doesn't just affect people in the past. It affects us today, people who are living.''

A few years ago, it came to Mitchell's attention that someone was trying to sell a ''Penobscot Indian skull'' on eBay. He helped inform Penobscot leaders, who contacted representatives of the Internet auction site. The posting was immediately removed.

''Things that are taken from graves, that is bad enough because those are human objects,'' Mitchell said. ''But to take a scalp or a skull, to say this was on our family shelf for 100 years and we don't have use for it anymore. To turn them into money, that is perversion.''

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at:

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