GREAT FALLS — Preston Jay Spotted Eagle of Browning was sentenced in federal court in Great Falls on Thursday, April 6, 2023, for stealing culturally significant artifacts - including a grizzly bear claw necklace, beaded moccasins and golden eagle feathers from a war bonnet from the Museum of the Plains Indian on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
The government said the thefts occurred between May 2021 and August 2021 at the museum, where Spotted Eagle was employed as an aide. 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 & Wildlife Service identified Spotted Eagle as the suspect.
The first piece found to be missing was a grizzly bear necklace from one of the 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 reportedly 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.
Court documents state that when he was interviewed by agents, Spotted Eagle claimed that he found the bear claw necklace damaged, removed it and attempted to repair it, but that he was unable to notify other employees because they were absent. Agents confirmed the employees were present on the date Spotted Eagle removed the necklace. Agents confronted Spotted Eagle about removing four claws from the necklace and replacing them, which he denied. Spotted Eagle abruptly ended the interview, swore at the agent and left after making an obscene gesture.
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.
Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Morris sentenced Spotted Eagle to five years of probation, as recommended by both parties in a plea agreement; 250 hours of community service; and payment of $16,860 in restitution.
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