GREAT FALLS — A Browning man today admitted to stealing culturally significant artifacts, including a grizzly bear necklace, moccasins and golden eagle feathers, from the Museum of the Plains Indian on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, U.S. Attorney Jesse Laslovich said.
Preston Jay Spotted Eagle, 31, pleaded guilty to theft of government property. Spotted Eagle faces a maximum of 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and at least five years to life of supervised release.
Chief U.S. District Judge Brian M. Morris presided. Chief Judge Morris will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other sentencing factors. Sentencing was set for Feb. 8, 2023. Spotted Eagle was released pending further proceedings.
The government alleged in court documents that the thefts occurred between May and August 2021 from the Museum of the Plains Indian, in Browning, where Spotted Eagle was employed as an aid. The Indian Arts and Crafts Board, with the U.S. Department of the Interior, run the museum. In August 2021, the curator noticed that a bear claw necklace was missing from the displays. An investigation conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified Spotted Eagle as the thief.
The government alleged that the first piece found to be missing was a grizzly bear necklace from one of the historic gallery displays. The curator assumed Spotted Eagle had removed it because she had given him an inventory assignment. When asked about the necklace, Spotted Eagle told the curator he had no idea who took it or what happened to it. A review of security system video ultimately led to Spotted Eagle. When confronted again about the necklace, Spotted Eagle said he thought he was the one who took it out of the display because the necklace had fallen. Spotted Eagle told the curator that nobody else needed to review the video and that he could guarantee the necklace was still in the museum. That afternoon, Spotted Eagle said he found the necklace under some papers in a collection room. The next day, the curator asked Spotted Eagle to show her the necklace and she noticed that was heavily damaged.
In addition, the government further alleged, the museum conducted an inventory to identify any other missing items. In addition to bear claws that were missing from the damaged necklace, four loose bear claws were taken from a collection room drawer. A pair of moccasins and 26 golden eagle feathers from a war bonnet also were taken. The investigation further determined that Spotted Eagle removed artifacts, photographed them with his cell phone and tried on historic clothing item, some of which were very old and delicate. Spotted Eagle also rummaged through many sacred bundles.
An appraisal of the damage to the grizzly bear necklace resulted in a $1,200 loss of value. The market value of the moccasins and four claws together was $1,150 and the replacement value was $2,150. The eagle feathers do not have a fair market value because the trade is illegal, but the valuation of the missing eagle feathers could be $7,800, based on a forfeiture collateral schedule. The damage to the war bonnet has not been calculated for the same reason as the eagle feathers. The government alleged that it was impossible to put a monetary amount on the items, which are unique and culturally significant to the Blackfeet Tribe.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office is prosecuting the case, which was investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.