The government is entering settlement talks with the director of a Custer-themed Montana museum, trying to resolve who owns a cache of American Indian artifacts seized in raids by federal agents.
The 22 Indian war bonnets, medicine bundles and other items were confiscated in 2005 and 2008 from the Custer Battlefield Museum in Garryowen. The government spent years pursuing artifact fraud charges against museum director Christopher Kortlander, but dropped its investigation three years ago.
Kortlander, who says the items rightfully belong to the museum, will press his case Monday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Keith Strong in a settlement conference in Great Falls.
The U.S. Attorney's Office says most of the items have feathers from protected eagles, making them possible contraband. They have alleged some were stolen from members of the Crow Tribe.
But Kortlander has not been implicated in the thefts. And officials acknowledge one allegedly stolen war bonnet could have been misidentified.
Kortlander says federal officials from the U.S. Attorney's Office and Bureau of Land Management who are holding onto the artifacts are "trying to save face" for the years they spent on a fruitless investigation.
"They need to let it go," Kortlander said in an interview. "They're basically making up stories at this point. They won't concede anything."
In a recent hearing before U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull, Assistant U.S. Attorney Victoria Francis said the government did not have enough evidence to determine how the museum acquired the items. She said Kortlander previously had been unable to tell federal agents where they came from.
"When you say, 'I don't know whose they are,' that would indicate you're not the owner," she said. Francis added that a "museum should be able to say, 'That was donated to me by Mr. and Mrs. Smith.'"
Kortlander has since said he's found tax records or photographic documentation for most of the artifacts. He says any items determined to be stolen would be returned to their rightful owner.
Kortlander's museum is within the Crow Indian Reservation, just a few miles from where Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and more than 200 troopers and scouts from the Crow Tribe were killed in June 1876, by up to 1,800 Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors.
Thousands of items were seized during the 2005 and 2008 raids, which came after officials suspected Kortlander was fraudulently dealing in Little Bighorn battlefield artifacts and illegally buying and selling Indian artifacts.
After the government dropped its investigation in 2009, most of the items seized during the raids — including 7th Cavalry and American Indian artifacts and thousands of pages of documents — were returned.
Among those items that weren't given back, government attorneys initially identified four stolen items: a feathered Crow war bonnet belonging to Larson Medicine Horse, a tribal member and former Big Horn County sheriff, and three medicine bundles belonging to Daniel Old Elk, the Crow Sun Chief.
Francis said a photograph supplied by Medicine Horse to prove his ownership turned out to be a picture of another war bonnet. But U.S. Attorney's Office spokeswoman Jessica Fehr said officials still haven't determined the owner of the seized item.
Leaders of the Crow Tribe say the rightful place for artifacts made by their people — regardless of how Kortlander got them — is with the tribe. Burton Pretty On Top, the tribe's cultural director, says the Crow, over the years, have lost many items to museums that have spiritual significance to their original owners and their families.
"I don't have any information on how (Kortlander) got those," Pretty On Top said. "In general we are concerned with any (medicine) bundles in possession of non-Indians. It belongs to the Indians, it belongs to the Crow — not for a museum's sake and to view and make money on."
Kortlander is not a member of the Crow.
Cebull said during the recent hearing that the case was entering uncertain legal territory, because typically it would be up to the government to prove it can continue to hold onto the museum's artifacts. Instead, it wants Kortlander to offer up proof even though he's never been charged with a crime.
"There's not going to be any criminal prosecutions," Cebull said before recommending mediation between the two sides. "We're plowing unplowed ground here."