Browning man gets probation for stealing sacred artifacts from Museum of the Plains Indian

By: - April 7, 2023 1:44 pm
Blackfeet beaded moccasins

Blackfeet beaded moccasins (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement)

A Browning man was sentenced Thursday to five years of probation and ordered to complete community service and pay restitution after stealing artifacts from the Museum of the Plains Indian in 2021.

Preston Jay Spotted Eagle, 32, will have to complete 250 hours of community service and pay $16,860 in restitution under a plea agreement in addition to the probation, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Montana. He pleaded guilty last October to theft of government property.

Spotted Eagle was working at the museum on the Blackfeet Reservation when he stole the items belonging to the Blackfeet Nation, Crow, Lakota and other tribes. The items included grizzly bear claws from a necklace, a pair of beaded moccasins, and more than two-dozen golden eagle feathers from a full-length war bonnet.

He also damaged several sacred medicine bundles, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

“These irreplaceable cultural items represent the brave and valued history of our Native American brothers and sisters, which is why we will hold accountable anyone who seeks to engage in similar critical conduct,” said U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana Jesse Laslovich in a statement.

According to federal prosecutors, the thefts happened between May and August 2021 from the Browning museum, where Spotted Eagle was working as an aide. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said none of the stolen items were recovered.

Museum staff noticed the bear claw necklace was missing in August 2021, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was brought in to investigate. Surveillance video pointed to Spotted Eagle, who told investigators when he was questioned that he had found the necklace in a collection room. It had four claws replaced with newer claws from grizzly and black bears, federal officials said.

Museum staff then took inventory to see if anything else was missing and found other loose grizzly claws, the beaded moccasins and 26 golden eagle feathers from the bonnet were missing.

Surveillance video showed Spotted Eagle comparing his foot size to several pairs of moccasins before he took one pair, then rearranged the others. He was also seen on video handling the war bonnet that was later found to be missing the feathers.

“His actions have robbed current and future generations of seeing these items intact and enjoying their significance,” Assistant Director of the USFWS Office of Law Enforcement Edward J. Grace said in a statement.

Other video showed him photographing other artifacts, trying on ceremonial clothing at the museum and rummaging through what the U.S. Attorney’s Office called “sacred bundles.”

According to prosecutors, Spotted Eagle denied removing any claws from the necklace and replacing them with others. Investigators found pictures posted by Spotted Eagle on social media showing 33 golden eagle feathers.

“The Indian Arts and Crafts Board shares the outrage expressed by Blackfeet community members regarding the mishandling, destruction, and theft from the Museum of the Plains Indian of culturally significant and sacred Blackfeet collections by Mr. Spotted Eagle – someone entrusted with their care and protection as a then Museum employee,” IACB Director Meredith Stanton said in a statement.

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Blair Miller
Blair Miller

Blair Miller is a reporter based in Helena who primarily covers government, climate and courts. He's been a journalist for more than 12 years, previously based in Denver, Albuquerque and mid-Missouri.