A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
On March 16, 1998, William Stevens, owner of the gallery Evolution pleaded guilty in Brooklyn federal court to violating the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the Endangered Species Act, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Stevens' NAGPRA violation concerned the sale of Indian skulls and skull fragments. Prosecutors sought a 12- to 18-month jail term, and Stevens faced up to $600,000 in fines.
At his June 25, 1998, sentencing hearing, Stevens told Judge David G. Trager that "I realize that I have upset many people by my actions and wish to apologize, in particular to the Native American peoples." Alexander Ewen spoke about the seriousness of the case to the Indian community, and his statement is presented in full below. The judge sentenced Stevens to 16 months for violation of the wildlife-related charges and, for the NAGPRA violation, 12 months (to run concurrently) and one year of supervised release as well as a $20,000 fine and restitution in the amount of $8,967.
Statement of Alexander Ewen: Thank you, Your Honor. On behalf of the 30,000 member New York City American Indian community, because we come here, and this is the leadership of our community. We come here because this is not a trivial thing for us, and we have a great interest in seeing that justice is done.
It is fitting today that we come here. Today is Greasy Grass Day to us, as it is a holiday. One hundred and twenty-six years ago, we had a victory of sorts. We defeated Custer in the Battle of Little Big Horn. It is fitting because the other person -- there are only a couple of other people who have been convicted under this act. One other person was convicted of looting the Little Big Horn grave site and trafficking in American Indian bones from that grave site.
We fought hard for this act. We fought hard and bitterly for it. For many years, our grave sites were called burial grounds. They still are. They are not even accorded the dignity of being called cemeteries.
Our people have been trafficked for so long, and these are not just unknown people. These are well-known people. Our greatest chief, Mangas Coloraoas, his head was decapitated and sent to Europe on a tour. Captain Jack, a Modoc Chief, his skull was used as a paper weight by a government official at the Smithsonian Institution for years.
For thousands of years, we have revered our dead people. We honor them. to us they are not -- they are not dead. They are alive. They live with us. We work hard to make them trans -- transfer to the spirit world, as we would say. We give them food when they die. We honor them and we honor their remains. To us the earth is a sacred place because of our dead people.
The blood, the bones, they water this ground. They make it rich. They made us a great people in our day. It is our spirit, the spirit of our dead and our living, who become dead that make us, that make this world. We believe these things, and so as a consequence we believe that this crime is not a simple crime, a small crime.
To traffic in the remains of a person is to traffic in the remains, whether they are dead or alive, to us is no different. For us to see a skull in a storefront window is to see a child or a person in the storefront window. It gives us the exact same feeling.
We cannot take this as a simple matter, because these people are relatives and we have been brought up, we have been trained, we have been told to care for our relatives living and dead.
The other thing is that we know, we know, we believe -- we more than believe, we know that these bones have power. They are not a simple object to us. They are not -- they are more than people. They have power. To traffic in these bones is to traffic in many things that we say would bring evil to the world. It is not a simple thing. It is not a light thing to handle these objects. It is a very serious thing.
But I think all cultures understand that. I think all cultures revere their dead. All cultures have some sense of the power. Most people do not walk into a cemetery at night because they know that the dead have power. We know this too.
And we know that in giving remains, in selling remains to other people misfortune comes with that, terrible misfortune. Because it is -- it is a twisted thing.
We come here before you not because we have an agenda or because we feel that we some political need to speak before you. We come here simply because to us this is a crime, a terrible, terrible crime. It is as if to us a crime had been committed to our community member, because it is in many ways a crime a crime has been committed to our community member; to a few of our community members, not just one.
And we feel that justice must be done when a crime has been committed and somebody has to speak for the dead because although they have power, although they are with us, somebody has to speak on their behalf and so we have come here and say to you, please, on behalf of the community, this is a serious thing. This is not a small thing for us. We would not come here if it was. We would not waste our time. We are a busy people. We have other struggles; many, many struggles. We still fight for the things that we have always fought for, but we come here, we are thankful, thankful that you have given us a few minutes to speak and we ask you, please, to understand that for us this is not a trifling thing. This is a serious thing, and we ask for you to impose the maximum sentence, to show people, to let people understand, to make people know this is an evil, pure and simple, and it should remain away from this world.
The dead and the living should not mix. People need to understand that, people need to understand that.
Thank you very much, Your Honor.