Indigenous Leaders Fight Bill Promoting Citizen Archaeology: "Do Not Disturb the Spirits of the Water"

Artifacts: Cool trinkets to some, sacred items to others.EXPAND
Artifacts: Cool trinkets to some, sacred items to others.
Grand Canyon National Park via Flickr Creative Commons

A bill pending in the Florida Legislature would let anyone pay $100 for a so-called "citizen archaeology permit" and then be able to dig up historical artifacts from submerged lands like riverbeds and lakes — and keep what they find. 

Collectors are psyched about the bill. 

Archaeologists say that only they have the expertise to collect and catalog such artifacts. 

And some Native Americans say leave the artifacts the hell alone. Passage of the bill, they warn, would result in looting and vandalism of sacred items.

"We tell you," said Bobby C. Billie, an indigenous leader, "do not disturb the spirits of the water. That means also Aboriginal Indigenous Peoples’ resting places under the Water or Artifacts or other Belongings." 

Currently, Florida law (267.115, Florida Statutes) directs the state's Division of Historical Resources to acquire and maintain historical artifacts. The bill (HB 803/SB 1054) aims to amend that statute. New language would set up "a program to administer the discovery of isolated historic or archaeological artifacts from sovereignty submerged lands."

Per the bill, anyone could apply for a $100 permit to collect artifacts. When receiving their permit, so-called "citizen archaeologists" would get a list of known archaeology sites that are off-limits. If they discover items, they'd be required to report them to the state within 14 days, along with photos and a map where said artifacts were found. They'd also have to let state officials inspect them. There would be a $1,000 fine for not complying. 

But they could keep the artifacts. The language in the bill sets up "authorization to transfer ownership rights for discovered artifacts to the permit holder."

Collectors with the Tri State Archaeological Society say that it's fun to find things like shark teeth in riverbeds — but that under current law, it's technically illegal to take home an artifact that is 60 or more years old. A permit system, they say, would motivate and engage these passionate collectors to catalog finds for the common good.

They talk about "collector rights" and "government overreach," arguing that amateur archaeologists are often more careful than bureaucratic state workers. Teben Pyles, a minister who is a fourth-generation collector and the organization's president, wrote, "It only takes one discussion with those who have worked behind the scenes in local museums to realize that there are thousands of artifacts stored away with no future intentions of being visible to the public even though many of them are rare, high quality, one of a kind examples of an artifact... There are some instances, to add to this, where things have disappeared and family members can’t get straight answers as to where their family member’s donations have gone or been housed." 

James Dunbar, a retired supervisor with the Department of State’s Underwater Archaeology program, told the Tallahassee Democrat, “This bill is being pushed by an out-of-control antiquities market. This is not about mom and son picking up projectile points; this bill is being pushed by owners of the largest artifact sales operation in the southeastern United States.” He said that a similar program existed in the 1990s but saw only a 40 percent compliance rate and was scrapped. Other archaeologists have criticized the bill and said that the $1,000 fine is not a deterrent.

The Florida Public Archaeology Network has been speaking out against the bill, pleading in posts, "Floridians, we need your help! This Bill would protect people who are taking valuable artifacts from you (the public)! These artifacts, by law, belong to the people of Florida, and shouldn't be taken by any single person. We want to keep these artifacts safe and cared for by a department with the resources to do so, not by individual collectors who may or may not understand details of context and preservation." 

But Billie, spiritual leader of the Original Miccosukee Simanolee Nation Aboriginal Peoples, says just leave them be. 

He believes the bill would give license to collectors to plunder sites that may have been ancient burial grounds. He also suspects the move is a pretext to clear land of protected historical sites so the powers-that-be can proceed with development, underwater oil and gas pipelines, and other such projects.

He had a heartfelt and spiritual reaction to news of the bill:  

“We have been saying the Spirits of the Land are connected to the People. Not very often Aboriginal Indigenous Peoples talk about Spirits of the Water. We do not disturb the Spirits of the Water. We respect them and that is how everything should remain. We know that is why most Aboriginal Indigenous Peoples have never talked about the Spirits of the Water, but we will say this, that has been disturbed throughout the country. We tell you: Do not disturb the Spirits of the Water. That means also Aboriginal Indigenous Peoples’ resting places under the Water or Artifacts or other Belongings. We know who these Peoples are.

They are our Ancestors and we tell you to respect them and leave them alone. It is rightfully the right of Aboriginal Indigenous Peoples to protect these sites and preserve the sanctity at our sites. We are the only ones with the knowledge to advise properly what can and cannot be done. Non-Indigenous Peoples do not have this knowledge and do not have the right to determine what should or should not occur at these sites. It is up to the Aboriginal Indigenous Peoples to decide. They know what to do and will tell you what to do.”

He asked that people contact their legislators and urge them to stop the bill. 

Currently, the Senate version is on the agenda for the Governmental Oversight and Accountability committee meeting, February 1 at 1:30 p.m. 

In the House, it's in the Transportation & Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee.

Charles Dean Sr. and Denise Grimsley, both Republicans from Central Florida, introduced the bill in the Senate. A group of state reps sponsored the companion bill in the House. 

Here's Billie speaking to the Florida Senate in 2013: 

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