They're Called 'Pothunters,' but Some Say 'Grave Robbers'

'Washington Post' explores the 'endless robbing of Native American graves'
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 17, 2021 3:35 PM CDT
They're Called 'Pothunters,' but Some Say 'Grave Robbers'
Stock image.   (Getty/pxhidalgo)

In the lingo of their field, they're known as "pothunters." As Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson explains in a lengthy Washington Post article, the term refers to people who might be most charitably described as amateur archeologists. On the other end of the spectrum, they might be called grave robbers. In her story headlined "The Endless Robbing of Native American Graves," Dickinson tracks the ongoing shift in perception between those two extremes. Decades ago, pothunters were celebrated as they unapologetically pillaged Native American burial sites to make a profit or to create collections of their own. (In fact, the Pilgrims wrote about plundering a grave site as early as 1620.) Since then, a succession of laws—notably the "Bones Bill," or the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990—has outlawed the practice. These laws have not, however, stopped it.

“People think this is something that happened in the past, but it’s something that tribes are dealing with now," says Holly Cusack-McVeigh, a cultural anthropologist at Indiana University-Purdue University. Cusack-McVeigh has helped tribes with the repatriation of bones and artifacts stolen long ago, but she is leery about providing details. “Grave robbers know that tribes are often reburying the dead with their belongings, so funerary objects that have already been looted can be re-targeted, sometimes by the same people, if we’re not careful.” The story focuses on the late Don Miller of Indianapolis, who amassed a huge collection of Native American artifacts and even bones from his own amateur digs dating back to the 1920s. An archaeologist brought in by the FBI to assess his collection "openly wept," writes Dickinson. Read the full story. (More Native Americans stories.)

Stories to sink your teeth into.
Get our roundup of longform stories every Saturday.
Sign up
Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.