Marlboro Lights, Busch Beer, and Looting Native American Sites: The vices of meth addicts

Posted on March 26, 2010


In the past, the CPAL Blog has explored the connection between methamphetamine addiction and looting.  The River Front Times has published another article on the subject, “Tweakers ‘N Diggers: Looters are pillaging Native American burial grounds to finance their meth habits.”  The article is well-written and engaging, taking the reader through stories relating to looting in Illinois and Arkansas, where I myself used to do contract archaeology work for the Forest Service.  During my tenure, we were trained to recognize two things in the forest: evidence of looting and evidence of meth production.  If we saw either, we were to immediately leave and report what we had seen or found.  Run-ins with looters or meth producers could prove fatal.

While I was fortunate not to face any such run-ins, the people who live on and farm private land, or the federal agents who police the public land in these regions, are not always so lucky.  Excerpts from one story told in the Tweakers N’ Diggers story follow.  If you find it interesting, there are a half dozen more in the article that you might enjoy.

South of the bootheel, on the Arkansas side of the Central Mississippi Valley, Terry Melton feels that frustration. The 42-year-old chicken farmer has been running looters off his family’s land in the Strawberry and Black river bottoms for at least a decade. None has been convicted. On one occasion, he felt threatened enough by a trio of them to brandish an AK-47.

“There’s got to be something down here worth selling, otherwise the idiots wouldn’t keep coming back,” Melton says, bouncing his pickup truck over a potholed dirt road as he heads toward a remote soybean field surrounding two small burial mounds.

The Meltons have been farming this flat expanse for at least a century. Humans first occupied it 10,000 years ago, according to radiocarbon dating of artifacts. Scientists have identified at least 40 ancient human skeletons in this area, where looters have struck three times since last October.

Melton says he’s found so much trash over the years that he knows which brand of cigarettes and beer the trespassers like most (Marlboro Lights and Busch). He once even found a sock that someone used to wipe his butt.

Other clues are more subtle. The reason that dozens of small holes dot the soil, Morrow notes, is that looters slide fishing rods and old radio antennas deep into the ground to feel for something hard. Sometimes, they’ll paint their shovels white to make them easier to see in the dark. You can tell they come at night, she adds, because they inadvertently leave behind perfect spear points, some 4,000 years old.

The major prize for looters in this area used to be decorated ceramic pots dating back to the time of first European contact 500 years ago. But whole vessels are fairly rare now, and on these northeast Arkansan mounds, only shards remain.

Terry Melton’s cousin, Jamie Nunnally, has parked his truck and joined the group. Clad in camouflage overalls, he says he once fired shots in the air to scare looters off his nearby field. “We’ll probably never get it stopped,” he says. “I quit calling the law.”

Both cousins remember the wild nighttime chase of June 13, 2005. They caught two thieves leaving the mound around 12:30 a.m. and pursued them at high speeds through the bottoms. The perpetrators not only dropped their bag of stolen artifacts, they also jumped a small bridge, lost their muffler and ditched their pickup, leaving a shovel inside. Sheriff’s deputies from two different counties showed up. No convictions resulted.

As the article tells it, law enforcement isn’t doing much to stop the destruction.  This is caused by the extreme difficulty of catching looters on vast lands, and also by a cultural value system which doesn’t think looting is all that reprehensible.  On the federal lands around the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, authorities write about five citations per year to arrowhead hunters, each citation carrying a $225 fine.  But when a generic arrowhead can be sold on the private market for $10 to $40, and a nice one for several hundred, that hardly seems like a deterrant.

Read Tweakers ‘N Diggers: Looters are pillaging Native American burial grounds to finance their meth habits.