Environment | Law | National

Official who stole remains claims 'devotion' to Native Americans

A hole dug into a burial mound at the Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa. Photo from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility

The former superintendent of the Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa is painting himself as a victim even though he stole tribal ancestors and kept them in boxes in his home for 12 years.

Thomas A. Munson admitted that he took the remains of about 40 people and associated funerary objects out of the monument in order to avoid complying with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. But he is arguing for a lighter punishment due to his "longstanding friendship with and devotion to the culture of Native Americans," according to a motion filed in federal court.

Munson's attorney says the relationship began when he worked at the Navajo National Monument on the Navajo Nation in the 1960s. It continued during a stint at the Fort Larned National Historic Site in Kansas, which once served as an Indian agency for tribes in the area, and then again at Effigy Mounds, which numerous tribes in Iowa, Wisconsin and other states consider to be sacred.

"Having grown up with, gone to school with, and befriended many Native Americans, lived with and raised his children with tribal members, Mr. Munson has worked much of his professional life navigating the sometimes conflicting demands for protecting Native American heritage and at the same time affording public access to sacred Native American sites," the attorney wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

"Those who know him most intimately attest to this dedication, and the pain – both personal and professional – Mr. Munson feels for those who entrusted him to safeguard their sacred remains," the memo added.

But the attorney claims his client has been exposed to "extensive public scorn and embarrassment" due to public attention to the case. Age -- Munson is 76 -- and failing health were also cited as reasons for leniency.

"Against this backdrop of devotion to cultural preservation, the intense publicity surrounding this investigation and resulting prosecution has inflicted on Mr. Munson a significant and lasting wound," the filing read.

Tribes, however, do not see the situation in the same light. They were never notified about the missing remains until 2011 -- 11 years after Munson admitted he took and long after the National Park Service knew they had been removed.

"It was kind of a stomach-turning anger and disappointment," Johnathan Buffalo, the historic preservation director for the Meskwaki Tribe, told The Sioux City Journal in May 2014.

"He thought he was protecting something. He didn't see us as human beings," Buffalo added. "He just saw a science project."

Munson, who was allowed to retire in 1994 after more than 20 years as superintendent, will be sentenced on Friday, the Associated Press reports. His plea agreement calls for him to spend one year in home detention and 10 weekends behind bars but his attorney is claiming the incarceration will be too difficult to serve.

As part of the agreement, Munson has drafted a written apology to tribes and plans to make a videotaped statement. Copies are supposed to be sent to Indianz.Com, Indian Country Today, Pechanga.net and other media sites for publication.

Get the Story:
Theft of ancient bones a ‘debacle’ for National Park Service (AP 7/4)

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