Relic Hunting, Archaeology, and Loss of Native American Heritage at the Dalles

Article excerpt

Excavation of Wake Map mound will be resumed this summer by university students who will find their excavation of last year sadly addled by pot hunters disclaimed by the Oregon Archaeological Society ... most of the area around it [the mound] are beginning to look as if they had been worked over by a gold dredge.... The Indians don't like it but aren't doing anything about it. "It doesn't look right," said Chief Charley Kahelamat, who lives at the mound. 'All those things belong to the Indians."

--Oregonian, March 29,1953

NINETEENTH CENTURY EXPLORERS marveled at the thousands of Native people from across the Pacific Northwest and northern Great Basin who gathered in The Dalles region each summer to fish, trade, and socialize. Archaeology demonstrates that various aspects of these gatherings have been going on for close to ten thousand years. (1) Along the twenty-four-mile shoreline of The Dalles Dam reservoir in Oregon and Washington, archaeologists have recorded Over 120 sites that contain house pits, lithic scatters, elaborately made stone and bone carvings, petroglyphs, and graves. (2) Native people and non-Native people alike feel strong personal and spiritual connections to this place, in part because it holds such a lengthy record of occupation.

It is important to study the history of how we came to know about that tangible record of the ancient past before activities such as construction of The Dalles Dam seriously degraded it. Relic hunters who took hundreds of thousands of artifacts from the region for curiosity or profit are prominent in the story, as is their complex relationship with professional archaeologists. Neither group gave much consideration to Indian views about archaeology. This history highlights our national priorities, which promoted hydro-development across the West, yet supplied limited federal dollars to mitigate resulting losses to cultural heritage.


Those past activities caused pain and hurt feelings that are still with us. The court battle over control of the 9400-year-old skeleton, so-called Kennewick Man or the Ancient One, stems in part from a long history of archaeologists and relic hunters treating Indian graves with far less respect than they would give to graves of their own ancestors. Another legacy is the disposition of artifacts looted from The Dalles, most of which are now in private and museum collections and continue to be bought and sold through on-line auctions and other venues.

This paper does not offer any solution or salve for the hurt, but it seeks to tell some of the story, warts and all.

MOST EXCAVATING AND COLLECTING of artifacts on the lower Columbia River before construction of The Dalles Dam was done by relic hunters, hobbyists who were interested in Indian history and who appreciated the thrill of finding old and beautiful things and building personal collections. Some collectors were driven by profit, as there was a market for antiquities through individual buyers and museums. (3) The Antiquities Act of 1906 made it illegal to excavate or "appropriate" antiquities on federal land, but the law was little enforced and did not much deter collectors. Establishing the scale of the activities--such as the number of items actually taken, the amount of soil screened or dug into, and the number of people who participated--is difficult. Individuals worked on their own and kept limited records, and most collections have become dispersed over time. Anecdotal accounts by collectors and by professional archaeologists who documented plundered sites suggest a level of taking that is almost beyond imagination.

One prominent hobbyist in the first half of the twentieth century was Norma G. Seaman, who in 1946 wrote Indian Relics of the Pacific Northwest, a guidebook for collectors. Seaman directed collectors to The Dalles and hinted at the extent of artifact collecting there:

That part of the Columbia from The Dalles to Celilo is the most interesting part of the river for any kind of Indian study . …